June 20, 2021


Keep Fit & Healthy

The Reason Weightlifters Use Smelling Salts Before Big Lifts

2 min read

This is Your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

Most people are familiar with smelling salts for their intended use—reviving fainting victims—but if you ever watch a powerlifting competition, you’ll see a second application: as a stimulant. At least a few of the athletes will hold a capsule to their nose right before a big lift, inhale deeply, and then shift immediately into wild-eyed beast mode as they attempt a seemingly superhuman feat of strength.

Smelling salts work for powerlifters for the same reason they awaken the unconscious. When you sniff a smelling salt, you’re inhaling a small amount of ammonia gas, which irritates the membranes of your nose and lungs, eliciting an “inhalation reflex.” That reflex triggers an increase in your breathing rate, which causes your heart rate to jump. That, in turn, stimulates your body’s “fight-or-flight” response, causing the release of adrenaline, a hormone that enhances gross motor skills (like lifting) and causes an acute uptick in focus and alertness. In short, it turbocharges the body.

That all happens in the blink of an eye—and the performance boost lasts only slightly longer, which is why you’ll notice powerlifters wait until right before they grip the bar to crack their ammonia capsule. So should you follow their lead during your own big lifts?

Your move:

You might consider it if you’re attempting a one rep max, but don’t make a habit of using smelling salts during your regular workouts. While they can deliver an almost instantaneous strength-performance boost, they can also reduce fine motor skills. That means they might negatively affect your form, and form is everything in the gym—especially if you want to optimize your gains and remain injury-free.

Skip the smelling salts in favor of caffeine, which studies show can have a profound effect on strength and power generation. Creatine is another good option. It can take up to a month to build up to sufficient levels in your system, but once it does, it can help you bang out more heavy reps and recover faster between sets.

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