Skip to content

Introduction to Strength Training

Learn about the benefits of strength training for people with cancer in this guide from The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine.

Jump to topic


What you should know

What is strength training?

  • Strength training (also known as resistance training) is a type of exercise that causes your muscles to contract against an outside resistance.
  • The outside resistance can be from your body weight, weight machines, medicine balls, resistance bands or dumbbells.

Benefits of strength training

  • Increased muscle mass: Helps to maintain muscle strength and function and improve general physical function
  • Stronger bones: Helps reduce the risk of bone fractures
  • Joint flexibility: Can reduce symptoms of stiffness and arthritis
  • Enhances overall quality of life by giving you the ability to do more
  • Weight control: Can help to manage your weight
  • Helps to control your blood sugar
  • Can help prevent reoccurrence or secondary cancer
  • Improves sleep
  • Balance: Can help reduce falls
  • Reductions in cancer-related fatigue and anxiety and depression

What you can do: Learn more about strength training

Things to consider

  • Always consult your doctor before starting a strength-training program.
  • Never push yourself to the point of pain.
  • Always start exercising slowly and cautiously to gauge how much your body can handle.
  • Pick exercises that align with your goals – just because everyone is doing them, doesn’t mean you have to.
  • Modify exercises to match your physical capability. Many lower- and upper-body exercises can be done from a seated position instead of standing.
  • Further, there is no risk with resistance training for women with or at risk for breast-cancer-related lymphedema.

Where do I start?

Find the right time.

  • Try to dedicate 30 to 60 minutes a day, two days a week.

Pick the right exercise equipment.

  • Choose between free weights, resistance bands, weight machines, water training or body-weight exercises.

Put together a program.

  • Select four to six exercises that target different major muscle groups.
  • Perform two to three sets of eight to 10 repetitions of each exercise.
  • Try to use a resistance that feels like an “8 out of 10” effort, with 10 being the highest effort you can give.

Set a goal.

  • To get stronger, try increasing either the weight, number of repetitions, number of sets or number of exercises.
  • Increase your workload once you feel comfortable with your current program.

How hard should my workout be?

  • A rating of 0 means that you’re not doing any exercise and are resting. A rating of 10 means that your body is working the hardest it can.
  • As you begin your strength training, try to exert yourself so that you’re rating your workout between a 3 and 4.
  • After you feel you have made some positive progress, try and push yourself so that you’re increasing your difficulty rating to the 4 to 6 range. This is called “moderate intensity.” At this intensity, you should be able to speak in sentences without becoming completely out of breath.
  • If at any point you feel any unexpected pain or soreness, decrease the intensity of your exercise session.
  • A rating of 9 and 10 is excessive.

Intensity scale at a glance

  • 10 – Maximal effort – as hard as you have ever worked
  • 9
  • 8 – Very hard
  • 7 – Moderately hard
  • 6
  • 5 – Hard
  • 4 – Somewhat hard (starting to breathe harder)
  • 3 – Moderate
  • 2 – Somewhat easy – like walking around your home
  • 1 – Very easy
  • 0 – At rest

Where can I find more information about aerobic and strength-training exercises?

If you are interested in starting aerobic and/or strength-training exercises, The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) provides videos demonstrating proper form for more than 50 exercises.

See the videos here