Total Shape is a reader-supported site. Purchases made through links may earn a commission. Learn more.

What Do Powerlifters Sniff Before A Heavy Lift?

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: March 16, 2022

If you've ever watched professional powerlifters during competitive events or even in training at the gym, you'll notice that they sometimes reach for a small bottle or capsule of something that they sniff.

You'll also see this with NFL players when they sit down after a particularly exhausting part of the game.

Because I work as a strength coach with a few powerlifters, I've seen the benefits that you can get from sniffing ammonia. But this probably won't give the average newcomer to the gym the boost they think it will have.

So, I did some research into the science of smelling salts to give you an idea of how they work and whether they’re suitable for you.

Quick Summary

  • Weight-lifters sniff ammonia salts before a big lift, especially when piling on more weight than usual.
  • Amateurs could also benefit from sniffing ammonia when trying to lift particularly heavy weights.
  • But there's a right and wrong way to sniff smelling salts, with many people using it with the wrong timing.

What's In That Bottle That Powerlifters Sniff Before A Heavy Lift?

powder in a heart shaped bowl

That little bottle that powerlifters keep in their pocket contains ammonia, usually in powder form.

You can also get small ammonia caps that you break open under your nose to give you one dose of the active ingredient.

When you sniff smelling salts, you trigger an inhalation reflex [1].

It's what boxing coaches used to reach for if their fighter hit the deck after a knockout.

This not only fills the lungs with air and more oxygen but also causes the body to release more adrenaline [2]. All this combined give athletes more alertness, focus, and even better strength performance during a powerlifting competition.

Let's take a closer look at what exactly happens.

Why Do Powerlifters Sniff Ammonia Salts?

man sniffing a smelling salt

Many lifters will regularly use ammonia salts to improve performance levels, especially when they load up more weight.

Preventing Feeling Faint

When someone faints or loses consciousness, one of the oldest remedies is to get them inhaling ammonia gas. The result of this is an increased and deeper breathing rate [3].

The same smelling salts can also be used in a preventative way to reduce the risk of feeling lightheaded.

And that's important for bodybuilders.

When you're lifting a particularly heavy load that might be more than your own body weight, then blood and oxygen rush to the muscles. As the heart tries to keep up with the added strain, it's quite common to feel a bit faint [4].

What the ammonium carbonate does is cause you to take a sudden deep breath and release more adrenaline that causes your heart to pump harder [2]. That, in turn, delivers more blood and oxygen to the brain, making it less likely to feel faint.

Boosting Focus And Motivation

man flexing his body muscle

Apart from that sudden inhalation reaction, I find that the instant focus you get from smelling salts is the most immediate thing you notice [5].

It's as if no other distractions exist, and you get a laser focus on just one task.

What personally surprised me the most was that when you sniff ammonia salts, the reaction is almost instant.

Coupled with the adrenaline boost mentioned above, your body seems to be able to get to work on one thing as if you're in that fight or flight mode of a dangerous situation.

At the same time, you want to reserve this effect for very heavy lifts, for example, when you approach your personal best.

This is where doubt can creep in, and you want your body and mind to just do as told without thinking about it too much.

Reducing Muscle And Joint Pain

Now, I don't want to suggest that you should ignore the pain that could be the result of an injury. But when you lift a heavy load, your muscles will start burning under the buildup of lactic acid [6].

"When you exercise, your body uses oxygen to break down glucose for energy. During intense exercise, there may not be enough oxygen available to complete the process, so a substance called lactate is made. Your body can convert this lactate to energy without using oxygen. But this lactate or lactic acid can build up in your bloodstream faster than you can burn it off." - WebMD.com.

It seems like the fight or flight response that your body goes into distracts your body from the pain until you're done with the heavy-lift [7].

Related Article: Best Joint Supplements To Relieve The Pain

Lifting Heavier Weights

Ultimately, with more oxygen coming in through your lungs, your heart pumping harder from the adrenaline, and your mental focus, the result should be the ability to lift a heavier load.

Now, some studies say that the arousal from sniffing ammonia doesn't translate into a physical performance boost [8]. Still, my experience with powerlifters and professional football players points to some very good results.

What Does Science Say About How It Works?

holding a smelling salt

The first thing I want to highlight is how science explains the sudden inhalation effect that you get.

What happens here is that the smelling salts hit the mucous membranes in the nose and lungs, and this triggers an involuntary response to take fast and deep breaths [9]. It seems like it's a response to clear the "irritant" out.

Once the smelling salts have hit the nose, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, which is ultimately what triggers the release of certain hormones, especially adrenaline [10].

It's the same thing as would happen in the fight or flight response if you encountered a serious predator in the wild. The stressful situation triggers a completely natural reaction that evolution designed to increase our chances of survival [11].

I will also mention a study I highlighted above that concluded that there wasn't a measurable link between smelling salts and improved physical performance [8].

It's certainly not something you should ignore, but I would suggest making up your own mind about how well smelling salts might work.

What Does Ammonia Smell Like?

Ammonia has a very strong smell that I would describe as a mixture of sweat and urine. Yes, sniffing ammonia is not a pleasant experience for your nose.

Now, before you try to smell your own pee and sweat mix, I'd suggest that there's an easier way to find out what it smells like without buying some.

Go find a window cleaning product at home and check if it contains ammonia. It's possibly labeled as NH3, the chemical formula for ammonia [12]. Spray some of the cleaning agents on a paper towel and see if you get that very strong acidic smell in your nose.

It’s not pleasant, and smelling salts will be considerably stronger than what you’d get with any kind of cleaning product.

Who Should And Should Not Use Smelling Salts?

woman disgusted with smell

Let me first start with who shouldn't be using smelling salts, as there are some health considerations.

Anyone that has some type of lung condition like asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema should not use smelling salts at all [13].

Because of the way ammonia interacts with the mucus in the nose and lungs, there is an increased risk of adverse reactions with underlying lung conditions.

Even if you're a performance athlete who regularly takes part in powerlifting meets, even a minor lung issue like mild asthma shouldn't be ignored.

Now, assuming you don't fall into that category, I would suggest that you get to a certain level of strength and fitness. Smelling salts are not how powerlifters become that strong.

They are not some sort of magic substance that will allow you to train harder and bulk up more. What they do is get you into that focused mindset with adrenaline pumping, as described above.

So, if you're not trying to constantly beat your personal best, don't bother with smelling salts.

But if you've gained a lot of muscle and you can squat and deadlift close to your body weight, then sniffing smelling salts could help you with those very large single rep lifts [14]. Just avoid using large amounts for every lift.

Timing The Use Of Ammonia Salts

Smelling salts work pretty much instantly, but you may still want to get your timing right as the effect wears off quickly. My own experience says it's about 4 to 5 minutes, and I've found other athletes reporting similar results [15].

That means two things for your timing.

First of all, taking a sniff of smelling salts in the locker room before your workout will probably mean that the effects will wear off before you get any benefit from them. By the time you've done a bit of stretching and a warm-up routine, you won't notice much of an effect.

Secondly, I would suggest sniffing a capsule about 30 to 60 seconds before a one-rep lift. It gives you a bit of time to get used to the burning sensation and let the extra adrenaline kick in.

I find it better to let that initial surge settle a bit and then get my eyes focused on the weights.

How Often Should You Use Smelling Salts?

woman with headache and a man coughing

I already covered who should be using smelling salts, but it's just as important to keep in mind how often you should use them.

While adverse effects from smelling salts are rare, frequent use of large amounts could lead to several issues.

Here are a few to look out for [16]:

  • Headache
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Burning sensation

The most common thing I've heard from other sports athletes is that while they breathe faster, using it more than a couple of times in a workout tends to cause burning in the nostrils.

This is most likely the result of the effect ammonia has on the mucus and membranes in the nose, and it can lead to longer-lasting damage [16].

So, how often is it safe?

There's no official medical guideline, but because of the toxic nature of ammonia, it's probably best to reserve it either for competitive events or when you're trying to beat a personal best.

Even serious lifters who enter professional events tend to use it sparingly.

Where Can You Buy Smelling Salts?

mini shopping cart

You can find smelling salts and other ammonia inhalants like ammonia capsules in stores specializing in sports and diet supplements. So, the next time you're shopping for some protein shakes and pre-workouts, see whether they offer a product like Nose Tork.

I personally prefer the single-use capsules as they are easier to store and bring with you into the gym.

They work by cracking open the capsule and holding it about 10 inches away from your nose. And they are small enough to keep in your pocket until you need them.

Related Article: Can You Snort Pre-Workout?

FAQs

Are Ammonia-Smelling Salts Safe?

Yes, ammonia-smelling salts are generally classed as safe and have been used for hundreds of years to revive someone who has fainted. If you have any lung conditions, it's best to avoid them as they irritate the membranes of the nose and lungs [13].

Are Ammonia Salts Banned in Boxing?

Yes, ammonia salts are banned in most boxing events. However, they are still commonly used in powerlifting competitions, NFL, and NHL, and they are not classified as illegal [17].

Are You Going To Try Smelling Salts?

If you have started to lift more weight than most people at your gym, you could be at a strength and fitness level where smelling salts would be helpful.

At the same time, it's essential that you only use them for lifting very heavy loads when you're approaching your personal best and doing a single rep lift.

I've had success with it for occasional use, but don't expect this to be a replacement for hard work on a consistent basis.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2579444/
  2. https://www.medicinenet.com/why_do_athletes_use_smelling_salts/article.htm
  3. https://www.brainfacts.org/brain-anatomy-and-function/body-systems/2019/a-brief-history-of-smelling-salts-082619
  4. https://www.livestrong.com/article/391937-why-do-i-feel-lightheaded-when-bodybuilding/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2579444/
  6. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/guide/exercise-and-lactic-acidosis#1
  7. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-to-your-body-during-the-fight-or-flight-response/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34228592/
  9. https://socratic.org/questions/59e560e7b72cff7c6964e16c
  10. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
  11. https://www.thoughtco.com/fight-or-flight-and-evolution-1224605
  12. https://www.mda.state.mn.us/pesticide-fertilizer/anhydrous-ammonia
  13. ​​https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/smelling-salts#side-effects
  14. https://www.menshealth.com/fitness/a31187286/smelling-salts-weightlifting/
  15. https://www.insidehook.com/article/health-and-fitness/smelling-salts-before-working-out
  16. https://www.webmd.com/brain/are-smelling-salts-safe
  17. https://powerfullifting.com/are-ammonia-smelling-salts-legal/

Was this article helpful?

About The Author