The 411: Re-Building Strength and Confidence After Surgery

If you are reading this, chances are you know firsthand that recovering from surgery is not only a journey of physical rehabilitation, but also of mental and emotional healing. Properly guided and planned post-surgery movement therapy should not only help you regain physical strength and mobility, but also return a sense of empowered agency – bringing you back into a cooperative relationship with your body.

There is a massive amount of literature on how to build confidence and esteem, but where you can really make mileage, both physically and mentally, is when you have a sense of doing and accomplishing something.

These are the moments when you can work with, not against your body and shift your perspective from fighting, back to befriending. In this way, your physical and mental rehabilitation are intrinsically connected.

Yet, after so many months, (or even years) of feeling tired, weak and at odds with your body (or even disembodied) it is only natural to want to recover as fast as possible. The danger is that if big movements and exercises are introduced too soon after surgery, as they often are, you can actually end up feeling worse. Soreness, stiffness and tightness from doing advanced rehabilitation exercises too soon are counterproductive, leaving you feeling frustrated and potentially in even more pain.

When it comes to building physical strength and confidence after your surgery, meeting and conversing with your body in a totally new way, the key is patience. True healing in this case happens when we adhere to the old idiom, less is more.

The best course of action is to start with simple and easy movements to build range, mobility and a sense of ease in your body. This sets the stage for a fully recovered range of motion that will allow you to build more strength and confidence faster, rather than overdoing it and creating more physical discomfort leaving you feeling sore, angry and frustrated.

Here are three movements to begin your post-surgery rehabilitation. Taking these little but highly effective first steps will help you build the foundation for physical strength and mobility and inso, help you feel confident and in cooperation with your body again. In this, Part 1 of our 3-part series, we focus on the pelvis and spine and shoulder:

1. Pelvic tilts

Lie on your back and make sure you feel comfortable. In the video we use pillows to prop the head, neck and shoulders. Landmark your tailbone and pubic bones and begin to tilt them forward and back (up to the sky and down to the floor). Avoid squeezing your buttocks or your abdominals and focus instead, on how you roll through your spine. There is possibility for movement to cascade all the way up to your neck. Check for this but do not force it to happen if it is not there naturally. As tissues calm down and mobility is restored, you will feel your entire spine move freely with this small motion.

Try 10-20 repetitions and stop if there is any discomfort.

2. Mid-spine rotations (“Steeple arms”)

Lie on your back and reach arms up to the sky over your chest. Gently press hands together. Start to roll head and upper body side to side. Go slowly and keep the rotation small to start. If it feels fluid and continuous, gradually increase your range of motion. Because this exercise focuses on the upper body you may experience some tugging and pulling. Use your judgement and if it feels like the motion is getting easier, continue. If not, stop. After some practice, you may enjoy a stretching sensation in your upper back between your shoulder blades. If you find the arm position uncomfortable, try laying your arms across your chest.

Try 10 reps each direction

3. Vertical arm to T arm

Lie on your back with arms reaching up to sky over chest. Gently press arm bones down into shoulder sockets so they feel settled. Open right arm towards the T position (reaching horizontally to the side) and then back up to vertical. The key is to keep the arm bone heavy in the socket. Expect to feel a tugging/stretching sensation up your arm and across your chest and if this sensation causes discomfort, keep the arm motion small.

Try 6-10 reps each side.


This is a 3-part, stage 1 exercise series designed to recondition your entire body before you return to regular workouts that are weight bearing on your arms.

  • You should not feel any pulling or ripping sensations.
  • If you do feel any strain, ease off and make your range of motion smaller.
  • If this does not help, omit the exercise altogether and revisit in in a week.
  • Do 6-10 reps of each exercise one after the other, then do three sets of the entire series. (Approx. 15 minutes)
  • Start with 3 – 5 times a week. Begin these exercises, based on the recommendation of your physician.

Margot McKinnon (B.Ed., M.Ed.) is a Pilates and Movement Specialist dedicated to helping train teachers and the general public to move with ease and integrity. 

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