Can You Workout With Just A Towel?

TowelsYes! Well kind of. Now before you say a single thing, don’t worry. I am not going to encourage you to throw away your gym memberships or workout gear. Although if you do want to donate any dumbbells or barbells, my doors are always open. No, instead I want to look at a wonderful book from the 1930s called Molding Mighty Legs.

Written by British-Canadian weightlifter George Jowett (of Jowett anvil fame), the book was written with a simple motivation in mind. How can people build their muscles without access to weightlifting equipment? By that time Alan Calvert‘s Milo barbell company was selling dumbbells and barbells across the United States but a space still existed for people exercising at home.

Returning to Jowett, he was one of the most influential fitness writers of the mid-twentieth century. Important in the development of American weightlifting, Jowett existed in a strange place of the fitness industry wherein he rubbed shoulders with both Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider, operating within both men’s magazine empires. He helped inspire thousands of individuals to lift weights, watch their diets and commit to physical fitness through his regular books and writings.

The Background

In the late 1930s Jowett embarked on a rather ambitious series of books dedicated to developing various parts of the body. Readers could pick up entire writings on building the chest, the arms, the shoulders, the back etc. Molding Mighty Legs was one of this series.

Remember again that these books were written predominantly for those training without access to gym equipment. Typically speaking, exercises centered on those that could be done with a kitchen table, some chairs and, even, towels. Now at times some equipment was recommended, as was the case with an inverted leg press Jowett devised. In the main, however, focus was on easy, and accessible, exercises.

Training with Towels

So how then do we build mighty legs with just a towel? Now the likely answer is we cannot. But given that the Covid-19 Pandemic closed gyms and thereby deprived many of us of our weightlifting equipment, it is always useful to look at alternatives.

Jowett Leg Ext.That’s what Jowett’s book was trying to do, to come up with useful alternatives. In Jowett’s writing, towels were used for what we usually call ‘finishing exercises’ like the leg extension and the leg curl. Thinking out loud, exercisers could use high reps or, better yet, slow tempos and isometric tension to try and make the most of these exercises.

And yes, of course, before you ask, these exercises could be happily done using resistance bands. The point of these exercises, and the book itself, was to encourage exercisers to make due with what they had. Again this lesson was well learned when our gyms were shut!

So we have our leg extension equivalent, what about our leg curl? Behold!

Towel Leg Curl

Does it Work?

Sadly, I have an answer. I have previously mentioned that I now train at home, in my back garden. This means that inventiveness and ingenuity now play a very important role in my training. So, having found Jowett’s book, I decided to give it a try. The results? Meh.

With a great deal of work and logistics (tempo, isometrics, pre-exhaustion techniques etc.), I felt that Jowett’s towel exercises could have a place within my workout. But, compared to my dumbbells, barbels and resistance bands, they hold a secondary place. I’ll likely never use them at home, but when I travel they’ll help add something different.

So not the best, not the worst, but always nice to try something new.

What about you? What weird and wonderful techniques have shown up in your workouts? Let us know in the comments below!

As always … Happy Lifting!

2 thoughts on “Can You Workout With Just A Towel?

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  1. I can remember Jowett’s ads from back in the 1940s in which he claimed, “I can make you commando tough.” Twenty-odd years later he modified that to “astronaut tough.”

    As a kid, I couldn’t afford a set of free weights and had to make do with chest pulls,”Krusher grips” and such. Of “oddball” equipment I acquired in later years when I was training with free weights, two stand out: One was a pair of “iron boots.” “Iron sandals” would have been a more descriptive term. You ran a dumbbell bar through a hole in the sole, put plates on the bars and anchored them with DB collars, whereupon you could do leg lifts, bicycling motions and perhaps other motions with them. Ungainly and inconvenient things were. Somehow they were lost or discarded during one of my various moves, and I have never mourned their absence. As I recall, Hoffman and Weider included them in their barbell/dumbbell kits.

    The other curiosity was a “teeth-lifting” device: You sent in a bite impression in cardboard, and the makers sent you a leather bit made in the shape of your bite. It had a chain attached with which you could suspend plates or a dumbbell and swing it about or otherwise build up your neck. This worked…all too well! My neck soon increased to 18 inches, which was fine. However, to my dismay, I discovered the only ready-made dress shirts I could buy in size 18 were made for grossly fat men, which I wasn’t, and were only available with short sleeves, a heinous fashion crime then and now. Custom-made shirts were far above my limited means, so I had to let my neck atrophy down to 17.5 inches, which size it has remained for the past half-century or so. I believe that head harnesses are now the favored devices for neck development–no doubt easier on the teeth.

    1. Hey Jan,

      That is hilarious. Also fascinating to see Jowett’s shrewdness when it came to keeping modern!

      I upgraded a pair of vintage iron boots during lockdown to help with leg curls and leg extensions. Was all going well until the strap broke on them when doing leg raises and I nearly concussed myself. They’re now reinforced and very safe. Actually, I do love them and wish a modern manufacturer made them.

      On teeth-lifting, the Stark Center actually has the lifting mouthguard used by strongman Ottley Coulter. So odd but cool still seeing the teeth marks! Haha that is quite the advertisement (or maybe unintended consequence) for your progress!

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