Why Do Powerlifters Sniff Ammonia? A Powerful Performance Hack

Sniffing ammonia before a big lift or during competitive powerlifting is a tried and tested ritual with positive results. You are probably wondering what these positive results are.

Well, this practice has been proven to instantaneously improve the powerlifter’s performance thus giving them an edge while lifting heavy loads. The simple science behind this is that the use of ammonia triggers the release of adrenaline which increases focus and alertness and reduces sensitivity to pain.

There is more to sniffing ammonia than just simulating the adrenaline rush and if you want to know the hows and whats then do read on!

Key Takeaways

  • Powerlifters perform very heavy lifts and even a moment of distraction can ruin their efforts and cause injuries.
  • Smelling salts are used by powerlifters to focus better and guarantee outstanding performance.
  • Smelling salts triggers an adrenaline rush that puts the body in a “fight or flight mode”.
  • Ammonia inhalants also help to prevent lightheadedness and fainting spells.
  • Using too much ammonia is considered unsafe and powerlifters are advised against using smelling salts more than once or twice in one week.

What Do Powerlifters Smell Before A Big Lift?

If you’ve ever attended a powerlifting competition, you’re likely to have noticed that powerlifters often smell something from a small container just before attempting a heavy lift. What they’re smelling is ammonia, typically in the form of a powdered substance known as “smelling salts”.

We may not give much thought to ammonia on a daily basis but believe it or not we are in contact with this compound almost every day.

Ammonia is a gas at room temperature but the specific type that we are concerned with is Ammonium carbonate ((NH4)2CO3)  which is a colorless-to-white, crystalline solid.

Household cleaning products typically contain ammonia. Interestingly, our bodies also produce ammonia as a waste product during the digestion of protein. Despite its association with cleaning, ammonia is actually an essential component within the biological system of the human body.

Smelling salts are a little different from the ammonia mentioned above as it is a mixture of diluted ammonia, ethanol, ammonium carbonate, and perfume.

Inhaling the salts releases ammonia gas which irritates the nasal and lung membranes, causing involuntary inhalation and increased breathing rate. This results in an increase in oxygen supply to the brain.

Powerlifters use smelling salts as a physical stimulant.

How Do Smelling Salts Work For Powerlifting?

How Do Smelling Salts Work For Powerlifting

Smelling salts has a more technical term called Ammonia Inhalant or AI and this term was coined after the practice of sniffing ammonia became popular among powerlifters and such athletes.

They use AI to increase their focus and motivation, and it is believed that AIs are mainly used to enhance short-term muscular strength. [1]

Here’s what happens to result in sudden improved strength and focus in powerlifters:-

Triggering Of An Inhalation Reflex

Ammonia has a very pungent smell. A rather unsavory smell of ammonia can be gotten from unclean lavatories or sewage treatment plants. Even if you are a powerlifter, the smell of ammonia is sure to revolt your olfactory senses.

Powerlifters do this intentionally when they take a container with ammonium carbonate salt and bring it close to their noses to take a good strong whiff. The release of ammonia acts as a strong irritant for the nerve endings within the nose,  the nasal cavity, and lung membranes. This immediately causes an inhalation reflex. [2]

Increase In Respiratory Rate

The breathing reflex directly leads to a change in breathing pattern where the powerlifter sniffing the ammonia is forced to take deeper breaths. This happens because receptors in the airways and lungs can sense the relative inflation and deflation of the lung as well as the presence of the inhaled irritant.

As a result, the receptors trigger an involuntary response to the foreign substance by engaging the brainstem respiratory circuits to maintain the efficiency of the respiratory system and lungs. [3]

The central chemoreceptors within the brain and the peripheral chemoreceptors in contact with arterial blood work together to evoke subtle yet critical changes in our breathing patterns. The ultimate goal is to maintain an optimal level of oxygen in our system, thus ensuring the smooth functioning of our body’s various physiological processes.

Adrenaline Rush

As the body tries to maintain optimal oxygen levels by forcing you to breathe harder, more than required oxygen is supplied to the brain which makes the body go into what is called a “fight-or-flight” mode.

This is a psychological term for the phenomenon where your body releases a hormone called adrenaline. The effect of this hormone does not last for long but while it is in effect, some of the human sensibilities such as mental focus, alertness, gross motor skills (like powerlifting), etc. increase while reaction and sensitivity to pain decrease.

All these conditions are optimal for athletes who need a sudden bout of superhuman strength to perform well in competitive powerlifting.

The purpose of adrenal glands is not to provide extra strength for performing endurance tasks. It is a fascinating biological phenomenon that serves as the body’s defense mechanism.

Whenever our body detects a threat, it will trigger the release of this hormone right into the bloodstream so that we can think harder and execute whatever is needed to get out of that threatening situation.

Why Do Powerlifters Sniff Ammonia?

Why Do Powerlifters Sniff Ammonia
Male powerlifter inhales smelling salts/ Sports Photos / Bigstockphoto.com

Smelling salts for lifting is a common practice among powerlifters. They do it because it benefits their sport and gives them a competitive edge. There are obvious and specific benefits to this.

The 4 most important reasons why powerlifters sniff ammonia are as follows:

It Helps Powerlifters Get “In The Zone”

There is a very popular and beloved myth across all sports in the world. It is called the “zone” or “flow”. It is a term used to denote a state of supreme focus or heightened state of consciousness that helps athletes perform at their peak performance. It is often considered a highly sought-after state in all sports.

The purpose of smelling salts is essentially to enter this zone. There is no concrete evidence or body of scientific literature that can prove the fact that lifters achieve this super-focused state after sniffing ammonia but multiple powerlifters have reported to experience an elevated sense of alertness after using smelling salts.

In simpler terms, sniffing ammonia before a heavy lift clears your head and helps you focus completely on the task at hand.

This can be the reason why powerlifters do not use this method for every set or session but reserve it for the most daunting max lifts or competitions. Otherwise, the body gets addicted to the smell of ammonia which is harmful, to say the least.

To Prevent Lightheadedness

The human body is not coded to lift very heavy weights as is done by powerlifters. It is an unnatural activity for the body and can cause spells of lightheadedness.

The medical term for this is Vasovagal Syncope where a perfectly fit individual lifts heavy weights, and may experience a temporary loss of consciousness due to insufficient blood flow to the brain. It is caused by a drop in blood pressure (hypotension) that prevents the heart from pumping enough oxygen to the brain to keep the person conscious.

It is known that making a fainted person smell ammonia can quickly revive them but the lesser-known fact is that smelling salts can prevent lightheadedness from occurring in the first place.

The probable reason for this is that the ammonia already triggers a change in the breathing pattern and increases oxygen supply to the brain. In this state, when the powerlifter performs the Valsalva maneuver (breathing deep and bracing for a stable core), it does not affect the blood supply to the brain, and the person is saved from passing out.

To Reduce Sensation of Pain

One of the more convenient effects of smelling ammonia is that it reduces the body’s ability to feel pain.

Inhaling ammonia triggers the release of adrenaline hormones in our bloodstream. This hormone can desensitize our body to discomfort and pain, enabling us to concentrate on the task at hand.

Although this effect can be advantageous for individuals seeking maximum power during a lift or competition, it is crucial to recognize that it may not always be wise as it can result in unforeseen outcomes.

To Ensure Optimal Performance

The ultimate goal of any competitive powerlifter is to perform well and that is the very reason why they go as far as deliberately causing discomfort to the nose and lungs by inhaling the foul-smelling ammonia.

There is however controversy regarding this benefit as there is no proven research that clearly shows any increase in total strength output in powerlifters that use Ammonia Inhalants. [4]

However, one recent survey has presented an alternative perspective indicating that trained men exhibited some degree of psychological arousal subsequent to the consumption of stimulants such as ammonia, which in turn resulted in enhanced performance. [5]

Psychological arousal appears to be particularly important for optimizing muscle activation. Explosive athletic performances can be said to occur when maximal neural activation is sustained for a limited time, and strength endurance is influenced by mental factors. [6]

Therefore, to reach a middle ground between these contrasting views, it can be safely stated that while Ammonia inhalants seem to have no proven effect in increasing the total measurable strength output in a powerlifter’s body, it does have some effect on the mental state and help them perform optimally.

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How Often Should You Use Smelling Salts for Lifting?

How Often Should You Use Smelling Salts for Lifting

Using smelling salts for lifting can boost performance but it should not be used too much or too often. Overuse of Ammonia inhalants can be addictive and cause long-term damage to your respiratory system and lungs specifically.

It is recommended that the use of this stimulant should be limited to max attempts. Do not use it no more than twice a week, preferably once. Getting ammonia-dependent may adversely affect gross motor skills which will directly impact a powerlifter’s form, potentially causing injuries.

According to a survey conducted among powerlifters, ammonia is most frequently used on the deadlift, particularly on second or third attempts. This suggests that powerlifters tend to reserve the use of ammonia for moments when the stakes are high. [2]

Are Smelling Salts Allowed In Powerlifting Competitions?

Yes, smelling salts are completely legal to use and possess during powerlifting competitions.

The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of prohibited substances does not include any mention of Ammonia salts and neither is its usage prohibited by the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) in competition, but they do specify that-

“A lifter shall not wrap, adjust his costume or use ammonia within view of the public.”

How to Use Smelling Salts For Powerlifting?

It has already been mentioned above, but there is no harm in stating again that ammonia has a really bad smell so suddenly sniffing it right before an important lift will have the opposite effect of being beneficial and you may end up throwing up.

Get used to the smell by sniffing it in small amounts so that it does not end up distracting you during the competition. On competition day you can follow the below steps:

  • Open the cap
  • Hold it 4-6 inches away from the nose and give a good whiff. If you are still getting used to the smell then definitely do not bring it any closer than 6 inches.
  • Close the lid immediately.

Are Smelling Salts Safe For Lifting?

Yes and No. It may be confusing to see both a positive and negative answer but here’s the thing:

Sniffing ammonia once or twice will not have any adverse effects on your health but doing it consistently over a long period of time may be detrimental. Even then if the powerlifter abides by the weekly limit of smelling it once or twice, they may not face any bad effects of the inhalant.

The problem lies with indirect injuries caused by it as ammonia numbs the body’s ability to feel pain for a short while and in that duration, powerlifters often push through their limits and end up with physical injuries. One more thing that happens is exacerbating head or neck injuries that happen when the body reacts to the revolting smell of the ammonia and causes the head to jerk away.

Powerlifters with respiratory conditions such as asthma or any type of allergies are strictly advised against using ammonia inhalants as they might trigger bad reactions and harm their health.

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Final Verdict

Powerlifting requires an insane amount of strength to perform. You would be surprised to learn that even after months of training, it is perfectly normal for athletes to panic and get nervous on the final competition day.

Moreover, the max lift is usually the most challenging part of powerlifting and that is lifters trying to get all the help they can to accomplish smelling salts happens to be one such thing that helps the athlete in putting the best performance.


  1. Herrick, R. T., & Herrick, S. (1983). Allergic reaction to aromatic ammonia inhalant ampule. A case report. The American journal of sports medicine, 11(1), 28. https://doi.org/10.1177/036354658301100108
  2. Pritchard, H. J., Stannard, S. R., & Barnes, M. J. (2014). Ammonia inhalant and stimulant use among powerlifters: Results from an international survey. J. Aust. Strength Cond, 22, 52-54.
  3. Mccrimmon, D.R., Alheid, G.F. (2009). Respiratory Reflexes. In: Binder, M.D., Hirokawa, N., Windhorst, U. (eds) Encyclopedia of Neuroscience. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-29678-2_5081
  4. Vigil, Justin N.; Sabatini, Philip L.; Hill, Laura C.; Swain, David P.; Branch, J. David. Ammonia Inhalation Does Not Increase Deadlift 1-Repetition Maximum in College-Aged Male and Female Weight Lifters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 32(12):p 3383-3388, December 2018. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001854
  5. Bartolomei, Sandro1; Nigro, Federico2; Gubellini, Luca3; Semprini, Gabriele3; Ciacci, Simone3; Hoffman, Jay R.1; Merni, Franco3. Acute Effects of Ammonia Inhalants on Strength and Power Performance in Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 32(1):p 244-247, January 2018. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002171
  6. Perkins, D., Wilson, G. V., & Kerr, J. H. (2001). The effects of elevated arousal and mood on maximal strength performance in athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(3), 239-259