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August 21, 2021 9 min read

Have you ever been to a weightlifting or powerlifting competition before? If so, did you see a lifter or two inhale from a small bottle right before hitting a big lift, then suddenly exhibit super-human strength?

If you saw that, odds are you witnessed the lifting miracle that is smelling salts. A powdered form of ammonia, smelling salts are a weightlifter’s best friend because they can help them boost their strength performance when it matters most.

Are you a little skeptical about ammonia? You won’t be for much longer! We are breaking down everything you need to know about sniffing it for improved exercise performance, including:

  1. What is ammonia (smelling salts)
  2. Why do powerlifters sniff smelling salts
  3. Whether or not sniffing smelling salts boosts strength performance

Here is everything you need to know about why powerlifters and athletes sniff ammonia smelling salts!

What is Ammonia (Smelling Salts)?

Whether or not you have heard of ammonia before, you are in contact with it on a daily basis. In fact, you have ammonia inside of you right now!  Scientifically known as ammonium carbonate, ammonia is a colorless and smelly gas at room temperature. It is one of the most common industrial chemicals used today, and you can find it in everything from cleaning products to fertilizer.

Ammonium carbonate molecule formula

Not only can you find it in many of your household products, but you can also find it inside of your own body! Your body produces ammonia by itself and uses it for a number of different bodily reactions, including working as a precursor for amino acids. Additionally, ammonia exists naturally in the environment and is an integral part of almost every ecosystem on earth.

Powerlifters, heavy weightlifters, and even professional football players are well known for sniffing ammonia. The specific type of ammonia that they sniff is a powder version that we have come to call smelling salts.

The ammonia gas gets turned into a powder form and then gets put into capsules. Smelling salt capsules are widely available.  These days, you can find the exact same capsules that athletes use at your local drugstore.

How and Why Powerlifters Use Smelling Salts

Right before a lifter performs a challenging deadlift, squat, or bench press, they will grab their ammonia caps, tear one or two open, and give them a deep inhale. They mostly do it during competitions, but sometimes you will see them doing it when they are in their home gym doing their regular strength training routine.

There are a couple of reasons why they sniff smelling salts, including:

  1. To have an easier time lifting heavy weights
  2. To reduce body aches and pains
  3. To increase focus and alertness

First off, the ultimate reason why most athletes sniff smelling salts is to boost their athletic performance and maximize their abilities.  In the case of powerlifters, that means being able to lift the heaviest weights when it matters the most. 

For other athletes, like football players, it could mean making the ultimate tackle or running your absolute fastest.  While powerlifters don’t use it as a replacement for training, they do use it as a stimulant to take their abilities to the next level!

Second, powerlifters and athletes sniff smelling salts to help reduce body aches and pains.  Specifically, they use it to reduce muscle soreness.  Alleviating soreness indirectly enables them to lift heavier weights and improve their athletic performance even more. 

For example, if a powerlifter is coming off of a week of training and has a sore chest, they can sniff smelling salts to alleviate that pain before doing a chest exercise in competition.  With less pain, they are able to lift more! Third, powerlifters and athletes sniff smelling salts to increase their focus and alertness. 

Imagine being a powerlifter in competition and feeling all of the nerves running through your system.  Those nerves can interfere with your performance if you do not quiet them down.  One way to quiet those nerves is to sniff smelling salts.  They will help focus your mind back on the task at hand, leaving the nerves in the dust.

The funny thing is that, before smelling salts were utilized by top athletes, they were used in the Victorian era to prevent women wearing tight clothes from fainting! Gone are the days that ammonia capsules were used to keep women who wore corsets breathing. Now, you'll find them in almost all of the gym bags at a Strongman competition!  Quite the dichotomy!

What is the Science Behind Smelling Salts For Improving Strength Performance?

We know what you are thinking.  You are thinking that this is all just a bunch of hype and sniffing smelling salts does not actually improve performance, reduce pain, or increase focus.  Before coming to any conclusions, let’s look at what scientific research says about smelling salts and their effectiveness!

Research shows that sniffing  smelling salts has a couple of effects on the body, including:

  1. Triggering an inhalation reflux
  2. Increasing breathing rate
  3. Initiating a fight or flight response

First off, sniffing ammonia smelling salts triggers an inhalation reflex.  When you take a whiff of the ammonia, the mucous membranes in your nose become irritated.  That irritation leads to the inhalation reflex, which causes you to take deeper and longer breaths.  As a result, more oxygen flows throughout your body.

As a powerlifter, having greater oxygen flow is key to success!  The more oxygen you breathe in, the more oxygen flows in your bloodstream.  And, the more oxygen in your bloodstream, the more energy that your muscles have.  With more energy in the form of oxygen, your muscles contract harder and produce greater amounts of force. 

As a powerlifter, this is important because you want to be able to exert as much force as possible during your lifts!  Not only that, but having highly oxygenated muscles can help reduce muscle soreness. Second, sniffing ammonia smelling salts increases your breathing rate.  Breathing rate is the number of times you complete a full inhale and exhale in a certain amount of time. 

Having a high breathing rate has several side effects on the body, including making you more alert and focused.  Like we mentioned above, being more alert and focused allows you to drown out nerves and negative feelings.  As a powerlifter in competition, being more focused on the task at hand helps you call upon your strength reserves when you need them most!

Lastly, sniffing ammonia smelling salts activates your fight or flight response.  Also known as an acute stress response, fight or flight usually activates when you encounter a scary, stressful, or unfamiliar situation.  For example, if you are about to take a challenging exam or make a terrifying public speech, your body goes into fight or flight mode.

It causes your heart rate to spike and your body to increase its output of the adrenaline hormone.  As a result, you might feel your heart pounding, start sweating, or feel a huge boost of energy. Your body goes into fight or flight mode thanks to human evolution.  Millions of years ago, our human ancestors were far more vulnerable to dangerous and life-threatening situations than we are today. 

Because of the imminent dangers, their bodies were equipped with fight or flight mode to detect potential threats in the environment.  When fight or flight mode went off, it signalled that there was some potentially dangerous threat in the area and that they should get out of the situation. 

It aroused them so that they would become aware of it, then it would boost their energy so that they could get out of the situation as fast as possible. Today, we don’t have those same imminent threats in our lives, but we still have the same fight or flight system in our brains. 

It goes off when you are in a situation where your brain interprets that there is a threat to your life.  Even if the threat is not totally valid, it still goes off! As a powerlifter, that fight or flight response can come in handy!  And, thankfully, sniffing ammonia has been shown to activate it in your brain. 

When it goes off, that extra adrenaline pumping through your system can help take your lifting to the next level!  It gives you a rush of energy that you can harness and put into your lifting. 

Therefore, if you have high levels of the hormone running through your system, you will be able to  lift heavier weights than you would without it! Feeling any less skeptical about ammonia smelling salts now? 

Is This All Just the Placebo Effect?

Even though some research shows that sniffing smelling salts can help improve athletic performance, can the credit go to the ammonia itself?  Or, is this just another case of  the placebo effect?

In case you have never heard of it before, a placebo is any type of “treatment” such as a pill or shot that seems to be real.  However, the treatment actually has no active substance and therefore has no real treatment effect.

Placebos are commonly used in scientific drug testing experiments.  For example, a scientist might be studying a new drug that is used to treat headaches.  The scientists splits a group of test subjects in half.  The first group of subjects takes the new drug, and the second group takes the placebo. 

The new drug and placebo look exactly the same, and neither of the two groups knows that the second group is taking a placebo.  After taking the medication, the scientist then asks all of the subjects if their headache improved.  If the second group says that their headache improved, then the reason is due to the placebo effect. 

The placebo medication did not improve their headache because it did not contain active ingredients.  But, the subject’s believed that they were taking the real drug and that it would improve their headache.  That belief alone is what caused their headache to improve!

The placebo effect goes to show that our minds have power over our bodies.  If we believe that something such as a medication is going to help solve a problem, then that belief alone will cause the problem to improve.  Moreover, the placebo effect demonstrates that humans have an insanely strong body and mind connection!

In the case of smelling salts, some people think that the belief that smelling salts improves athletic performance is the reason why they work.  Instead of the ammonia itself having an effect, it is the belief that it makes you stronger that causes powerlifters to lift heavier. 

Moreover, these people believe that smelling salts have a placebo effect. Given the mixed bag of scientific reviews of smelling salts, we cannot make a definitive conclusion that smelling salts are a placebo or not.  Therefore, we have to go off of the experience that powerlifters have using it and the mix of scientific evidence!

Is The Use of Ammonia Inhalants Salts Safe?  If So, How Can You Use it Safely?

According to an article published in the US National Library of Medicine, there are  zero recorded cases of adverse reactions related to sniffing ammonia smelling salts in the context of athletics. 

With that said, it’s pretty safe to say that you don’t need to worry about negative health consequences of sniffing it as a powerlifter. However, as a disclaimer, the same article does say that inhaling large amounts of ammonia in short periods of time can lead to toxicity.

How To Safely Use Smelling Salts

Want to do as the powerlifting pros do and try smelling salts yourself?  If so, then just be sure to do it safely! 

To do that, follow these essential safety tips:

  • Only purchase and use ammonia smelling capsules from an authorized retailer
  • Follow the directions on the back on the packaging
  • Hold the capsules between ten and fifteen centimeters away from your face when sniffing them
  • Inhale for only a couple of seconds at a time and then stop

If you have any medical conditions, we recommend talking to a healthcare professional such as your doctor before using ammonia capsules!

​​​​Smelling Salt Substitutes

If you don’t want to give ammonia smelling salts a try for whatever reason, there are other performance enhancing supplements you can use in its place. Creatine is probably the closest thing to an ammonia smelling salt. 

Unlike ammonia, you consume creatine in the form of a powder or a capsule.  Even though you don’t sniff it, it does have many of the same benefits, including enhancing your overall fitness performance.

Creatine powder and a small spoon

More than that, creatine has the following benefits, including:

  • Infusing muscle cells with energy
  • Boosting muscular strength and endurance
  • Speeding up muscle growth

Looking for the best creatine on the market?  Look no further than our  best-selling ATP-FUSION Creatine formula!

Final Thoughts on Powerlifting and the Use of Ammonia

Ammonia smelling salts are notorious in powerlifting, and they are not just a sham!  There is real hard evidence that they improve powerlifting performance and take powerlifters to the next level.

Solid scientific evidence, plus powerlifter testimony, and lack of safety concerns makes ammonia smelling salts all the more intriguing!  Will you give it a try to up your powerlifting game?


Bonus tip: One of the world’s most infamous powerlifters is Eddie Hall!  Holding two world records and being named the World’s Strongest Man, he knows a thing or two about powerlifting. Get on Eddie’s level by trying out his  complete powerlifting workout routine and meal plan!