Can you game your way to better abs?

We go abs-on with the Stealth Core Trainer, which combines a planking apparatus with a smartphone app to motivate you through the pain.

David Carnoy
David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
4 min read
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The Stealth Core Trainer starts at $200. The app is free.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"No pain, no gain" has been an exercise mantra going all the way back to the days of the Jane Fonda aerobics video. But new workout systems like the Stealth Core Trainer bring your smartphone into the mix, which could spark a new mantra: Game the pain.

Love it or hate it, the plank is one of the best exercises for strengthening your core. But actually planking -- maintaining what amounts to a stiff, unmoving push-up, where you strive to keep your whole body rigid, like a plank of wood -- can be a little boring. That's where the the Stealth Core Trainer comes in. 

It looks like a fancy padded board on top, with a sphere on its underside that sits in a base module. The design allows you to swivel from side to side and up and down as you hold the plank position, ideally with your body perfectly parallel to the ground.

Watch this: A high tech twist on planking leads to better abs

The other key element is a little compartment toward the top of the board. It has four sticky pads designed to keep your iOS or Android phone from moving around while you're using the Stealth app. And that's why Stealth calls it "an interactive fitness board."

The app starts with a simple game that uses the your phone's accelerometer to move a target sight over dots that appear on the screen. You have to hold the sight on the dot for a few seconds to get the dot to explode. Later in the workout the game changes a bit, making you follow a set of red dots to get to your main target to maximize the number of points you score.

There are ways to cheat -- you can bring your knees down and give your abs and back a temporary break while still playing the game -- but that would be silly, even if you do want to work your way to the top of the global leaderboard. The point is that your phone, and the game, are there to give you some extra incentive to hold your plank longer. And in my experience, they do.

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The app is available for iOS and Android devices.

Sarah Tew/CNET

At the gym on a standard padded mat I can generally hold my plank for about a minute, maybe slightly longer. But when I was playing the game on the Stealth Core Trainer, I typically was able to get to around two minutes and beyond, at least on the first set.

A couple of co-workers tried it and felt the same way -- they were able to hold their planks significantly longer when playing the game. The idea is to do a few sets over a 5-10-minute period, then repeat the workout later in the day. The more planking, the better, but even a 5-minute session can be quite strenuous. 

While there's no doubt the combination of the apparatus and the app really do create a great core workout, the question is, could you use the free app on its own with another cheaper apparatus such as a Bosu balance ball and get the same workout?

The answer is sort of but not really.

Stealth Core Trainer

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To make the comparison, I went to the gym and turned over a Bosu ball and placed my phone on the flat bottom of the base. Then I got in the plank position and fired up the Stealth game. I was able to move the circle over the dots, but I just didn't have the same range of motion. Certain dots in the corner of the screen were hard to reach because I couldn't dip to the side far enough to reach them. Thanks to its design and antimicrobial padded top, the Stealth Core Trainer is also more comfortable for planking, which helps you hold your planks longer.

Still, it is a little expensive. A good Bosu ball costs around $75-$100, and plenty of other free apps are available to use with one. Meanwhile the Stealth Core Trainer costs $200 for the Personal version or $300 for the sturdier Professional version that I used. The Professional version holds more weight but the Personal version should be fine for most people. The app, as I said, is free.

Right now the game selection is limited, but Stealth is planning on adding new games in the future, some of which may require vertical rather than horizontal orientation of your phone.

Aside from the price and limited gaming selection, there isn't much to complain about. If you're into planking or don't like to plank but wish you did, the Stealth Core Trainer is worth checking out. It proves that a little game can help you overcome the pain -- or at least hold it at bay for longer.

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