Have you ever caught a whiff of something gnarly in the weight room? No, not that. Something that smells like the air itself is burning. Take a look around and you might find a hardcore powerlifter capping a small bottle, red in the face, tears welling up in their eyes.
Smelling salts had been used for centuries as an emergency triage tool and, primarily, as an alertness aid before finding their way into the gym bags of strength athletes all over the world for (mostly) the same purpose.
From the football field to the deadlift platform, smelling salts offer a pocket-sized performance enhancement — think Popeye and his famous cans of spinach that cause muscles to sprout from his skin. But do smelling salts’ assaults on your senses come at a cost?
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What Are Smelling Salts?
Crystallized ammonia carbonate (which is essentially what smelling salts are) is extremely acrid and irritating when its fumes are inhaled through the nose. These vapors penetrate your sensitive mucous membranes and trigger a strong parasympathetic response. In simple terms, it lights up your system for a minute or two. The effect triggers a strong “fight or flight” response — kind of like being punched in the face.
Smelling salts saw usage as far back as the Victorian era (roughly the second half of the 19th century). (1) Doctors administered salts to unconscious or semi-conscious patients to jolt them back to a state of lucidity. Though they’ve been mostly cast aside by the medical community in favor of gentler, less-stinky methods, ammonia is commonly used across a variety of different sports to this day.
Are Smelling Salts Dangerous?
Anything is dangerous in a high-enough quantity, even water. Semantics aside, “proper” usage of smelling salts isn’t intrinsically harmful to the body — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t rigidly controlled or outright banned in some contexts.
For example, the World Boxing Union prohibits contestants or coaches from administering smelling salts or “similar irritants” during a match. (2) On the other hand, ammonia capsules are not only permitted but are widely used within the NFL. A 2017 ESPN spotlight on the practice called the inhalation of single-use ammonia capsules “an essential part of game day,” even for superstars like Tom Brady. (3)
Despite such widespread use on the turf (one source in the article reports that smelling salt usage may be prevalent among 80 percent of all professional football players), sources from the American College of Sports Medicine remarked that the ergogenic effects are largely placebo.
Huffing ammonia can make a player believe they’ve been infused with an almost electric hyper-awareness, which causes them to perform better for a down or two on the field.
However, salts have drawn criticism as a way of masking potential head injuries in sports. Famous quarterback Terry Bradshaw has spoken publicly about his history with traumatic brain injuries, saying:
“When I played for the Steelers and I got my bell rung, I’d take smelling salts and go right back out there. All of us did that.” (4)
Ammonia carbonate vapors do a bang-up job of clearing your airways and providing acute mental focus, but they’re in no way a legitimate medical treatment for on-field or in-game injuries. Still, most major sports leagues don’t opt to regulate player consumption at all.
Smelling Salt Usage In Strength Sports
Competitive strength athletes rely on all kinds of zany rituals to hype themselves up before attempting a big lift. Pacing back and forth in front of the barbell, cranking their favorite song up to borderline-deafening levels, even getting the occasional slap across the back (or buttocks, or arms, or face, even) from their training partner or spotter.
On top of it all, lifters will crack a bottle or snap a capsule of ammonia moments before attempting a big deadlift, bench press, or clean & jerk. Most governing bodies of major strength sports permit the usage of smelling salts in or around competition:
- The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) makes no mention of it in their Technical Rules & Regulations.
- Ammonia carbonate isn’t on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of prohibited substances.
- The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) doesn’t prohibit the usage of salts in competition, but specifies that “A lifter shall not wrap, adjust his costume or use ammonia within view of the public.”
Benefits of Smelling Salts
In addition to providing a borderline-euphoric nasal exorcism, inhaling ammonia carbonate vapors is a widely popular practice in competitive sports for a few good reasons.
Salts Temporarily Improve Your Breathing
Allowing the fumes of ammonia carbonate to waft into your nostrils will briefly clear your airways and expand the amount of air you can recycle while you breathe:
“The release of ammonia gas that accompanies their use irritates the membranes of the nose and lungs, and thereby triggers an inhalation reflex. This results in improved respiratory flow rates …” (1)
Salts Provide Mental Clarity
More than anything, athletes who play on the field or fight with the barbell utilize smelling salts as an ergogenic aid for mental clarity and focus. The inhalation of ammonia fumes is potent enough to be almost painful, but it also helps an athlete “level out” and focus on the task at hand.
Salts are particularly useful in the moments before a maximum-effort lift that doesn’t require a calm, composed demeanor. You won’t often see professional weightlifters huff salts before a big snatch attempt, but powerlifters will absolutely take a whiff and chuck the bottle right before they grip-and-rip a deadlift.
Salts Are Part of the Pre-Game Ritual (Sometimes)
Even if the actual benefits of smelling salts are mostly psychological, that doesn’t make them useless. Self-efficacy is extremely important to athletic performance. If an athlete watches their fellow players use salts and then perform well, they might convince themselves they stand to benefit from them in the same way.
So, some athletes will include ammonia carbonate inhalation as part of their pre-game or pre-lift ritual purely out of consistency and habit.
The Nose Always Knows
If you can stomach the stench, smelling salts can do a lot to augment your performance out on the field or in the weight room. As with any performance enhancer, your risk level tends to correlate with the frequency and intensity of your dosage.
Lean on them too heavily for too long and you’re probably doing more harm than good. You can easily burn off the follicles in your nose if you hit the bottle too frequently. If you’re a weight lifter, save the salts for those select few days when you really need to see red.
- McCrory P. (2006). Smelling salts. British journal of sports medicine, 40(8), 659–660.
- Rules & fees. World Boxing Union. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2023.
- The NFL’s salty secret. (n.d.). ESPN.com.
- Bradshaw shares battle with concussions. (2011, April 12). FOX Sports.
Featured Image: sportpoint / Shutterstock