It’s a fairly common sight at a powerlifting competition; just before a competitor approaches the bar, they take a sniff of some sort of dry powder. What they’re doing is sniffing ammonia in powder form.
Ammonia triggers the release of adrenaline, which can help a powerlifter in competition lift a heavier weight by increasing their focus, reducing aches and pains, and essentially turbo-charging the body to prepare it for maximal lifts.
Here, we’ll look in more detail at the main reasons why powerlifters sniff ammonia before lifting heavy weights.
1. Increases focus
Sniffing ammonia, which is usually done from ammonia capsules, triggers what is called the ‘inhalation reflex.’ This increases your heart rate and gives you a rush of adrenaline which, in turn, leads to more focus.
That extra adrenaline and focus can be extremely useful for a powerlifter in competition, as there can often be many distractions and fleeting thoughts that can crop up at the crucial moment of preparing for a lift.
One of the effects of ammonia is to help focus the mind so that a powerlifter is only thinking about the lift they’re about to perform.
2. Reduces competition anxiety
Likewise, ammonia can help to temporarily combat some of the anxiety and doubts that might creep in before lifting the heaviest weights. It’s quite common for lifters to overthink the lift they’re about to perform, and this can cause uncomfortable feelings that negatively impact performance.
By focusing the mind and providing a boost of energy and adrenaline, ammonia inhalants can momentarily reduce the impact of these negative thoughts so that the powerlifter can give their best attempt.
3. Reduces aches and pains
Regular exercise – particularly weightlifting – will always cause aches and pains in the body; it comes with the territory. However, when in a competition, powerlifters need to produce their optimal lifting performance, which feelings of pain can hinder.
By flooding the body with adrenaline, ammonia inhalants momentarily cause the dulling of pain in muscles, which can be vital in the biggest lifts that require every part of the body to be working as hard as possible.
The issue with this is that body aches are there to tell us certain muscles need to rest, and by using ammonia to dull these signals, powerlifters are running the risk of causing injury or making these body aches a lot worse.
4. Prevent lightheadedness
Heavy lifting demands a lot of your body, and powerlifters sometimes attempt such a difficult lift that it causes them to feel lightheaded and, in some instances, to even faint.
As a smelling salt, ammonia is sometimes used to resuscitate someone who has already fainted, but ammonia products can also be used to help prevent someone from fainting in the first place.
Not only is feeling lightheaded or faint an uncomfortable experience, but it can also be especially dangerous while someone is performing a heavy lift. Ammonia-smelling salts can help to mitigate the risks of occurrences like this.
5. Lift more weight
Research has found that ammonia can actually help powerlifters develop their maximal lift, further proving how it can positively impact performance, whether it’s in competition or training.
While further studies are likely needed to properly explore how ammonia causes these improvements, it’s clear that the substance can help you pull off an extremely heavy lift. This is likely down to the psychological effects of ammonia and how it creates focus and motivation through the release of adrenaline.
6. Prepares the body for lifting
All of this is to say that ammonia helps powerlifters prepare their body for the short burst of stress they’re about to put it under. By triggering the release of adrenaline, the body is being put into its ‘fight or flight’ mode, which can enhance performance.
This is because the heart rate is elevated, so more oxygen is reaching blood cells and thus there is more energy in the body. This burst of adrenaline sharpens the mind and makes muscles more responsive, meaning they’re more likely to be able to successfully perform the lift.
Powerlifters have been using ammonia to enhance their lifting performance for a long time, and it’s easy to see why. The powder triggers a burst of adrenaline that can create more focus and place the body into a state that is suited for heavy lifting.
Powerlifting is a challenging form of exercise that requires short bursts of extreme strength, which is why ammonia can be so effective, as its benefits are only felt for a short period of time.
It’s also worth noting that ammonia should be used reservedly and only for competitions or when performing a maximal lift in training. This is because ammonia can have longer-lasting effects which impact your overall form, so it isn’t something that is useful for weightlifting in general.
Frequently Asked Questions
What happens when you sniff ammonia salts?
Once inhaled, the ammonia gas aggravates membranes in your nose and lungs. This creates a reflex (the ‘inhalation reflex’ referred to earlier) that elevates your breathing rate and heart rate. This then causes adrenaline to be released into your body’s systems, and it is this that can enhance focus and improve performance.
These effects only last for a very short space of time, which is why powerlifters sniff ammonia in the moments right before they perform a lift.
Is it illegal to sniff ammonia?
This will depend on the laws in your location, but in almost all areas of the world ammonia is perfectly legal to use. The use of ammonia is also allowed by most major competitions and organizations, meaning there aren’t many restrictions on the use of the smelling salt.
That being said, you should always be aware of anything you’re ingesting, so it’s wise to do your reading on ammonia before you use it. In general, it’s safe to use in small doses but, like most substances, it can cause side effects in some instances.