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Sniffing ammonia before a heavy lift and during competition is a widely accepted ritual among powerlifters and other athletes.
So, why do powerlifters sniff ammonia? Sniffing ammonia, through a single-use ammonia capsule or smelling salts, is done right before a heavy lift to trigger the release of adrenaline, which for many lifters is reported to improve their alertness, focus, performance and potentially reduce lightheadedness and feelings of pain.
The research on the effectiveness of sniffing ammonia for strength performance is relatively weak and requires further investigation; however, I’ll go into detail on why so many powerlifters still continue to regularly engage in the practice, what the ammonia actually does to your body, and whether it’s safe to use.
I’ll also provide you some product recommendations, advice on trying it for the first time, and answers to frequently asked questions so you have all the information you need before giving it a try for yourself.
What Is Ammonia/Smelling Salts?
From a chemical standpoint, ammonia (NH3) is a compound made up of nitrogen and hydrogen and exists as a colorless gas at room temperature with a very distinct smell.
When it comes to the smelling salts that you see in the gym or at powerlifting meets, it’s really the same product and the content of the bottles or capsules are actually what’s called an “Aromatic Ammonia Spirit.”
Aromatic ammonia spirit products are a combination of ammonia, water and alcohol. In some cases perfumes or other compounds may also be added to alter the smell slightly, but for the most part it’s all very similar in how it works and the reaction it elicits.
You may have some memories of learning about ammonia’s toxic properties in school, however, dosage does matter here and the trace amounts in smelling salts have been determined safe for use and you will most likely even find ammonia in common household cleaning products.
Smelling salts are, therefore, not bottles full of pure ammonia since that would be far too high of a dosage and potentially cause very serious side effects.
It’s important to note that while I will refer to aromatic ammonia spirit products (i.e. smelling salts) as “ammonia” throughout the article, ammonia just on its own should not be inhaled under any circumstances.
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4 Reasons Why Lifters Sniff Ammonia
The 4 reasons why lifters sniff ammonia are:
- Increase focus and alertness
- Prevent lightheadedness or fainting
- Reduce the feeling of aches and pains
- Ultimately lift more weight
1. Increase focus and alertness
Sniffing ammonia is a tangible means of getting you “in the zone” on a physiological and psychological level.
If you ask anyone who has used smelling salts in the past they’ll tell you that it removes all distractions and thoughts that would otherwise cross their mind in the moments before a lift. You become so alert all you can think about is lifting the weight in front of you.
This is why lifters don’t typically take a whiff of ammonia for every single set or even use it in every session, but rather, it’s typically saved for heavy 1 rep maxes, competition attempts and other daunting tasks.
Our natural “fight” response, which is activated by ammonia, exists to take the fear out of our minds and prepare us to go after whatever is threatening us, which can in the gym is potentially a weight you’ve never tried lifting before.
If you are the type of lifter that tends to ruminate, walk up to the bar hesitant or just generally second guess everything before a lift, ammonia may be a good tool to get you out of your head and back into your body.
The effects on alertness and focus may be even more useful for the days when you walk into a session feeling physically or mentally fatigued.
2. Prevent lightheadedness or fainting
Ammonia can be used as both a reactive and preventative measure for fainting episodes and lightheadedness.
I watched a lifter successfully pull a third attempt deadlift at a meet and moments after placing the barbell on the ground, his eyes rolled into the back of his head and was thankfully caught from crash landing by the spotter standing behind him.
Some lifters experience lightheadedness or even faint during or after the lift is complete. The experience can be unsettling at best and is injurious at worst, especially in the event that you fall and hit your head.
Ammonia is more commonly known to be given to someone who has already fainted, but it is a lesser known fact that the sniffing of ammonia may actually prevent the episode from even occurring if someone knows they are likely to faint soon.
So, if you have experienced dizziness and lightheadedness and want to be sure nothing happens, you may find smelling salts to act as a good preventative measure from feeling uneasy after a max effort method lift.
Note: If fainting or feeling very lightheaded after lifting is common for you please consult with a physician.
3. Reduce the feeling of aches and pains
The effects of sniffing ammonia includes the dulling of pain, meaning your body will feel ready to give 100% effort regardless of soreness.
The sport of powerlifting can sometimes have us feeling a little beat up and the last thing you want to feel before a difficult lift is a friendly reminder of any nagging aches and pains.
Because ammonia releases adrenaline through our body, it creates a dulling sensation of discomfort and pain you may otherwise be feeling.
The unintended consequence of this effect may be that during your lift you will be more likely to push through pain and that may not be advised in all cases. However, this is seen as a benefit for some who are willing to take the risk if it means successfully completing the lift or winning a competition.
In general, we should listen to our bodies; however, in a competitive setting something as inconsequential as a sore hamstring can prevent us from bringing our best selves to the platform and sniffing ammonia may be the extra motivation you need to give it your all.
4. Ultimately lift more weight
Lifters will sniff ammonia because they believe it does ultimately help them perform better and lift more weight.
This final reason is the most debated of the four because the data, up until now, would suggest that ammonia inhalants do not improve total strength output.
However, another recent study in trained men did suggest that the psychological effects of improving focus and putting your mind into “fight mode,” may, in turn, improve performance especially in sports where lots of force needs to be generated.
Part of the improvement in performance may very well be placebo in nature, however it’s difficult to test this theory since there isn’t another compound available that produces a similar feeling to inhaling ammonia without it actually just containing ammonia.
Therefore, if you think it makes you lift more weight there isn’t enough reason to tell you to stop using it and so many powerlifters who, anecdotally, feel stronger and more powerful after a whiff of ammonia will continue to keep it part of their ritual regardless of what the scientists have to say.
How Does Ammonia Work?
Ammonia can be classified as a stimulant. When inhaled, it irritates the nerve endings in your nose, lungs and mucous membranes which then triggers what’s called an “inhalation reflex.”
The inhalation reflex is your central nervous system’s way of protecting you from danger which it has detected by the irritation in your airways. As a result, adrenaline is released and your heart rate increases along with your blood pressure in order to improve oxygen flow throughout your body and particularly into your brain.
Just ask a lifter at your gym what it feels like, or even scroll through reviews online of smelling salts, and you’re sure to see or hear someone describe the sensation as being “kicked in the face.”
That feeling is a phenomenon you’ve likely heard about before: the fight or flight response. A sniff of ammonia essentially sends your body out ready to fight, except in the case of powerlifting your opponent is a barbell.
Sometimes using excessive amounts of ammonia can cause nosebleeds while lifting.
Should You Sniff Ammonia While Lifting?
An international survey among powerlifters in 2014 showed that out of the 3 lifts, ammonia is most commonly used on the deadlift and more specifically on second or third attempts. Meaning, its use among powerlifters is typically reserved for when stakes are high.
Does this mean you should be sniffing ammonia while lifting? That’s not for anyone to decide but yourself. Much like how some lifters prefer metal music and back slaps while others prefer a mellow environment and soft music, it just comes down to what gets you in the zone.
Your gym partner may love the effects of ammonia while you may be repulsed by them. If you’re like me and the mere thought of increasing arousal before a lift makes you sick, you may want to opt for some earplugs, alone time and encouraging words from friends instead of smelling salts.
How you react after a whiff of ammonia can really only be answered by being open to trying it out for yourself. Just make sure you have a trustworthy person around to show you how to use it responsibly.
Also make sure your first time giving it a try isn’t in a competition setting just in case you react negatively and the acute side effects distract you from actually executing your lift well.
Rest assured, you will likely be fine long term, however, you don’t want to learn seconds before potentially hitting a PR that inhaling ammonia isn’t something you’d keep as part of your pre-lift ritual.
2 Smelling Salts For Lifting
Ammonia products are relatively cheap and accessible and a quick Google search will give you several options, but for your convenience, here are 3 commonly used products used among lifters:
- Zone Smelling Salts comes as a 45g bottle packaged as a dry powder that requires adding a tbsp (15ml) of water into the bottle and shaking it to activate the inhalant. This is a reusable product that will last you weeks, if not months, but it will eventually decrease in potency over time.
- Ward Smelling Salts: comes as a larger 60g bottle of powdered ammonia product. This one is similar to Zone Smelling Salts in that they are shipped inactivated to preserve potency, however, it only requires a teaspoon (5ml) of water to activate the ammonia release. At 60g per bottle you receive more product inside potentially causing a stronger reaction when activated.
Frequently Asked Questions: Weightlifting Ammonia
What Does Ammonia Smell Like?
Ammonia is the main ingredient in everyday glass and window cleaners like “Windex” so you can expect pure ammonia to have a similar smell. However, certain smelling salts brands mix the ammonia with other aromas to create unique varieties or “flavours.”
Are Smelling Salts Safe?
Smelling salts are considered safe for adults and have been shown to have little to no adverse effects because the concentration of ammonia is too low of a dose to be toxic with occasional use. Be mindful that inappropriate use can burn your airways and may cause very watery eyes.
What Is The Proper Way To Use Ammonia?
Ammonia inhalants should be always kept at least 4 inches away from your nose and away from your eyes. If you’re trying ammonia for the first time it is recommended you hold it even farther away at around 6 inches. Time the inhalation as close as possible to the moment you lift the weight as the effects are short lived and will wear off relatively quickly.
Is ammonia allowed in powerlifting competitions?
While ammonia is allowed for use as a stimulant in powerlifting competitions, depending on what federation of powerlifting you compete in, there may be a rule regarding when you sniff it. The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) specifically asks that ammonia not be used within the view of the public.
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Are there any people who should not use ammonia?
Those who suffer from asthma, bronchitis, emphysema or any eye conditions should be aware ammonia will directly interact and irritate your airways and eyes so the recreational use of ammonia isn’t advised.
Powerlifting, at the end of the day, is a sport all about moving the most amount of weight possible. With that, lifters will do everything in their power to create the perfect environment to make giving their 100% effort possible.
Is sniffing ammonia necessary to be a successful athlete? No.
Does it make you look a little more hardcore? Probably.
Will it help you perform your best? Maybe.
Whether ammonia itself adds more pounds to the bar is still considered inconclusive, however, focusing your mind and body on the barbell without any distractions is in every lifter’s best interest when trying to lift weight at a maximal effort.
The question really comes down to how you personally like to achieve focus. Ammonia is just another safe, albeit uncomfortable, readily available option to ensure a good performance for those who may need the extra kick.