Resistance exercises may seem counter-intuitive after open-heart surgery, but lifting some weight (be it yours or some iron) can help you heal. Surgery and bed rest contribute to muscle atrophy (wasting away), muscle/joint stiffness, and balance issues, but resistance training can offset these negative effects. By regaining your strength and improving your exercise tolerance, you can quickly return to your activities and maintain your independence.
At 8 to 12 weeks, when your sternum is healed, you can begin moderate-intensity, dynamic resistance training with your cardiologist’s approval. Be sure there is no movement in your sternum (i.e., pain, cracking, popping, or feelings of pulling on the incision). Your weight training routine should progress at a gradual and consistent pace with the guidance of a clinical exercise physiologist.  

Single-joint vs. Multi-Joint Exercises for Strengthening

Single-Joint Exercises, such as a biceps curl, leg curl or leg extension, involve one joint and target a primary muscle group, and they’re typically non-weight bearing.
Multi-Joint Exercises (compound movements) engage several muscle groups and involve multiple joints simultaneously which make the exercise more efficient. They are typically weight-bearing exercises where you have to support your own body weight. As you get stronger, you can add some external weight (e.g., dumbbells, weighted balls).
Multi-joint exercises help you build a more functional body — one that increases strength, balance and coordination. These exercises consist of complex muscle movements and will help you perform activities of daily living (ADLs). They’re considered safer compared to single-joint movements and include:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Wall push-ups or push-ups*
  • Dips*
  • Planks*
  • Freestanding bent over rows
  • Bench presses
  • Overhead presses
  • Single-leg deadlifts
  • Lat Pulldowns

*Modified versions
Focus on form to prevent potential injuries. Proper breathing and lifting techniques are essential to every muscle-building routine.
Think EXhale on EXertion. Exhale during the hardest part of the exercise (lifting or pushing phase). DO NOT strain or hold your breath.
Target all major muscle groups first, such as your lower body (legs) or upper body (chest or back), then move on to smaller muscles (shoulders then triceps and biceps).  You don’t want to fatigue your smaller muscles as they assist during the larger muscle movements.
For example, the smaller muscles in the backs of your arms (triceps) help you perform a push-up which strengthens your chest and shoulders. But if you work the triceps first, they’ll be too fatigued to assist during the push-up.
Strength train two to three times per week.

NOTE:  Pay attention to signs or symptoms that occur during exercise. If you feel chest pain or discomfort, STOP. If they do not improve or worsen during rest, seek medical attention immediately.

Karen Owoc

Karen Owoc is a certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist specializing in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation and lifestyle medicine. Her science-based approach to longevity, nutrition, and muscle health has made her the go-to source for health seekers and medical professionals alike. Karen's best-selling book on functional longevity, "Athletes in Aprons: The Nutrition Playbook to Break 100", and her transformative perspective have mended many minds, hearts, and spirits.

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  1. Very good to pass along!

    1. Thanks, Lisa! Hopefully, it’ll reassure CABG patients that, if done correctly, it’s okay to strength train as a part of their recovery.

  2. This is where a good cardiac rehab program helps. After my CABGx2, working with the therapists at the hospitals cardiac rehab unit helped me understand what to be careful of, how hard I could safely push myself, how fast I could/should progress.

    1. Hi Marion, I’m happy to hear cardiac rehab worked well for you in your recovery. How have you been doing since you ‘graduated’ from the program? ~Karen

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