Ammonia inhalants (AI), also known as smelling salts, are common in the powerlifting gym. Coming in various capsule or bottle forms, these inhalants are made of ammonia carbonate and release ammonia gas, that when inhaled, causes a strong nervous response that is thought to enhance focus and ability to move weight. Although anecdotally supported by many lifters, the safety and efficacy of its use is often in question.
Research on AI use as a strength performance aid is limited. A study of Australian powerlifters found that over half have used AIs, with the majority of use taking place during the deadlift event. It is likely that this level of usage is similar in Canada and the U.S., with usage rates likely varying dependent on the culture of the environment they are training in. One study examined AI use and its effects on reps max performance at 85% load on the squat and bench press and found no treatment effect. Of the four similar studies I reviewed examining the effects of AI on force production, none showed an effect greater than placebo, with only one study suggesting rate of force development may be enhanced with AI. Overall it does not seem to have a direct effect on the ability to maximally recruit muscle during a lift.
Despite the lack of strength enhancing effect, athletes using AI felt more aroused and alert. It is common that a powerlifter will feel a sense of mental fatigue throughout a competition day, or in training for that matter. As a result, aids such as AIs, caffeine, and other stimulants that are not on the WADA list of banned substances, may help with aggression and focus during training and competition. This stimulant effect may result in better repeated maximal strength attempts throughout a workout or competition. This theory has not yet been tested.
As with the inhalation of any noxious substance, AIs can have potential damaging effects. Ammonia gas is extremely toxic and can cause extensive lung and neural damage, and even death. The dosages that can cause this type of damage are generally in the 10,000-40,000 parts per million range, with normal inhalant use in sport environments being thought to be in the 400-1500ppm range. However we all have stories of that guy in the gym breaking a capsule up each nostril while maxing out a bench. Although it makes for great theatrics, the likelihood of such stimulant use increasing strength performance, in addition to the head butting and face slapping, is low. The likelihood that it could cause acute asphyxiation and lung damage, however, increases significantly.
Although research does not indicate a performance enhancing effect of AI use in powerlifters, a case can be made for their use in enhancing mood state, limiting anxiety and focusing aggression during lifting. It is important for the athlete to recognize why they are using it, and how it may be affecting their performance, so that it can be strategically applied at critical time points. The problem that many powerlifters run into is using it as a chronic training aid. This daily use ultimately removes the individual’s ability to independently focus their mindset to allow them to lift maximally. A good athlete can train their mind to focus their aggression at critical time points independent of external stimulants. Once that skill is better mastered, the use of AIs is likely more appropriate, or alternatively it will become irrelevant.
Trevor Cottrell, PhD, CSCS