Using Smelling Salts for Lifting

Ammonia and powerlifting: are smelling salts the real deal, or just a myth?

If you go to any powerlifting meet, as you watch the athletes get ready to lift, you’ll witness some bizarre rituals – loud music, getting slapped in the face, and smelling salts, just to name a few. Smelling salts, also known as ammonia inhalants, are chemical compounds used to increase arousal. Smelling salts, or ammonia inhalants, are often used on athletes (mainly boxers) who have been dazed or knocked unconscious, in order to restore consciousness and mental alertness. The use of ammonia inhalants is approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of fainting.

They are also used as a form of stimulant in athletic competitions, such as powerlifting, strongman and ice hockey, to “wake up” competitors to perform better. Is there any science that smelling salts can make a lifter stronger or is it sports folklore? Smelling salts release ammonia (NH3) gas, which triggers an inhalation reflex causing the muscles that control your breathing to work faster. This happens through irritation of the mucous membranes in the nose and lungs, which in turn, increases arousal. Heightened breathing triggers an increase in heart rate, which then triggers an increase in the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight-or-flight response, and is activated during stressful situations. In theory, it makes sense that smelling ammonia inhalants before a heavy lift would increase muscle strength with increased arousal.

Does Research Supports the Use of Smelling Salts?

A study in 2014 examined the effects of ammonia inhalants with males who were asked to perform as many repetitions as possible with the back squat and bench press, at 85 percent of one repetition maximum (1-RM) after inhaling either ammonia inhalants (AIs) or a placebo (Vick’s VapoRub, VVR). At the end of the study, there were no significant differences between the number of repetitions performed in the back squat or the bench press after inhaling the AIs in comparison to the VVR. Many powerlifters complained that the study was not conducted properly because they were not 1-RM lifts, and powerlifters don’t train to failure for reps. Recently in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers examined the effects of AIs and 1-RM strength. Male and female powerlifters were paired for 1RM strength levels, and then randomly allocated to either a control or ammonia first condition, in a counterbalanced study design. Each of these tests took place 72 hours apart. Subjects attempted to perform 1 rep each with 85, 90, 95, 100, 102.5, 105, and 107.5 percent of their previously determined deadlift 1-RM. When performing the ammonia condition, the subjects performed each lift within 15 seconds of inhaling a capsule containing a 0.33ml solution of ammonia (50 mg, 15%), denatured alcohol (35%), and water (50%). When performing the control condition, they inhaled water from an identical bottle. Results were similar at the end of the study. The researchers concluded that ammonia inhalation does not increase deadlift 1-RM in strength-trained subjects who were not powerlifters.

Vigil, J. N., Sabatini, P. L., Hill, L. C., Swain, D. P., & Branch, J. D. (2017). Ammonia inhalation does not increase dead lift one-repetition maximum in college-aged male and female weightlifters. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.

Sherman, J; Potts, A; and Richmond, S (2013) “THE EFFECT OF AMMONIA INHALANTS ON STRENGTH PERFORMANCE IN MALE WEIGHT-LIFTERS,” International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings: Vol. 11 : Iss. 1 , Article 37.