Towels come in handy for sopping up sweat; it's rarer for them to be responsible for it. But for the past few weeks, a folded-up towel has added a new twist to my workouts.
Leah Wilson has been a Toronto-based trainer for more than nine years. Recently, when working with a client, she experimented with a towel as a way to further engage muscle groups using body weight instead of free weights.
"In order to avoid plateaus, we are always looking for different avenues to work the body," says Ms. Wilson, who calls her towel exercises the May Method (after her middle name).
The idea is not dissimilar to those gliding discs that have appeared on infomercials and increasingly in group fitness classes. In this case, a towel slides across a smooth floor, creating instability while forcing the body through a wide range of motion.
Consider a traditional plank. When one foot is positioned on top of the towel, it can extend out and in for extra adductor and abductor (inner and outer thigh muscle) work. Put another towel under the opposite hand so that it can move out and in, and the chest gets more action, all while you continue to maintain the plank through the abs and back.
Standing exercises include ballet-style pliés with one foot gliding out on the towel while the other remains stationary, as well as reverse lunges, which require more effort from the glutes and hamstrings in order to slide the leg back behind the body.
Among the most advanced exercises is a side plank, in which the foot closest to the ground drags the towel in toward the body. "Mountain climbers" involve a pushup position with the legs alternating in toward the body (in this case, a towel is under one foot) to help keep the heart rate elevated.
Done right, the exercises can have some of the same benefits as Pilates. "You're building long lean muscle and you can move at quicker speeds with less risk because you're [only]using your own body weight," Ms. Wilson says.
Still, she cautions that the incorporating the towel should only be done once people have mastered proper technique in the original exercises. Especially for the standing work, walls and benches should be used initially for support, in case the legs slide too far out and cause strain or a tear.
For best results, Ms. Wilson prefers microfibre towels, which are less textured, over plush terrycloth. She found hers at Mountain Equipment Co-op, where a 46 by 97 cm rectangle of recycled polyester costs $16.75.
But, really, any shammy-type material will do. You will likely need to fold it one or two times so that it becomes a contained pad for the hand or foot.
Truth be told, the gliding discs may have a leg-up on the towel in that they don't bunch up and the polymer material makes smoother contact with the floor. Ms. Wilson says she's considering sewing the towel ends together or having some made to her specifications.
Yet the towel can also be more challenging than the discs because there is more friction. Plus, the variety of compound exercises (using more than one muscle group) offer a strong adjunct to any workout, especially when travelling and access to other equipment is limited.
Just make sure to have another towel nearby; you'll need it.