Are Ammonia Inhalants Effective?

You’ve probably seen it before: a lifter preparing to hit the platform pulls something from behind their ear, bends it, sniffs it, and then charges out to the barbell. Perhaps you’ve seen a coach open up a little white bottle, carefully remove the lid, and place it directly under the lifter’s nose before a big attempt.

If you’ve observed something similar, it’s likely that you saw an athlete using an ammonia inhalant. Strength athletes commonly use ammonia inhalants in the hope of improving performance; given their widespread use, it is clear that athletes believe them to be effective.

In this article, we are going to learn what exactly an ammonia inhalant is, examine whether they have been shown to be effective, and finish with some of my thoughts on their use.

Summary

  • Ammonia inhalants are commonly used by athletes in the hope of enhancing performance in maximal strength and power tasks.
  • Research into their effectiveness has not found evidence to support their use.
  • Future research should investigate their effects on strength athletes who are fatigued as well as investigate whether they are effective with certain types of athletes.
  • If a lifter feels that their use helps them get into an optimal psychological state before lifting, then they should feel free to use them. They don’t hinder performance, and negative side effects are uncommon and generally mild.

What are Ammonia Inhalants?

If you haven’t used an ammonia inhalant before, you might be wondering how smelling something could potentially lead to performance improvements. However, if you have used them before, you will be aware of the powerful effects of ammonia inhalants on, well, everything.

When you sniff an ammonia inhalant, the potent odor irritates the nerve endings in your nose. This will usually lead to a reflexive movement away from the smell, and perhaps your eyes will water. Furthermore, if you’re anything like me, this experience will seem to heighten your senses. It is thought to bring on the “fight or flight” response.

Ammonia inhalants were historically used to awaken someone who had fainted. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It’s common for ammonia inhalant users to give their ammonia-naive friends a trial of ammonia inhalants to let them experience the effects. In fact, I may have been guilty of this on occasion.

When I was a competitive powerlifter, my training partner and I had some ammonia that we saved primarily for competition day or heavy training sessions. On one particular day, my brother was at my place, and we had recently received an order of a rather potent brand known as Nose Tork. We knew from previous experience that the first whiff from one of these containers is the strongest. So, we offered my brother the opportunity to open it and take the first smell. Well, his reaction was much like the video below:

To be fair, it wasn’t quite as bad as the video above, as we did warn him of the effects. However, if you haven’t used ammonia before and take a decent sniff, you are likely to get hit pretty hard. So, I don’t recommend doing this to your friends – and I recommend taking a cautious inhalation on your first use!

Are They Commonly Used?

In 2014, my colleagues and I presented a poster at the Australian Strength and Conditioning Conference regarding the use of ammonia inhalants (along with some other stimulants) among male IPF powerlifters. We were interested in a few things regarding ammonia inhalants:

  • Are they commonly used?
  • Are they considered effective?
  • Are they safe?

Prior to this study, it was clear through my involvement in powerlifting that ammonia inhalants were commonly used in the sport, and there was some literature suggesting they were used in other sports too, such as hockey and football (McCrory, 2006; Velasquez, 2011). But there weren’t any studies documenting the rate of use in powerlifters.

We found that, of the 256 male powerlifters who completed the online survey, 49.2% had used ammonia inhalants during competition. Athletes most commonly used ammonia inhalants for 2-3 attempts per meet (45.2% of users), and the deadlift was the lift where they were most frequently used (89.7% of users).

Ammonia Inhalant Use (Attempts per Meet) Amongst Users
12-34-56-78+
11.9%45.2%10.3%15.1%17.5%
Ammonia Inhalant Use by Lift Amongst Users
SquatBenchDeadlift
55.6%46.0%89.7%

Most of the respondents (79.7%) felt that ammonia use was safe, although 9.8% of users reported side effects (unfortunately, we didn’t collect data on the nature of the side effects, but anecdotal evidence suggests that any side effects from ammonia usage are generally mild and transient). Furthermore, most ammonia users (78%) believed that ammonia inhalants were effective at improving performance.

This project demonstrated that ammonia use was common in the sport of powerlifting (especially on the deadlift), and that they were considered safe by powerlifters and effective by users. However, this study was just a snapshot of current practices and beliefs of powerlifters. In order to determine whether there are any effects on performance, intervention studies were needed.

Limitations of Ammonia Inhalant Research

In order to determine the effectiveness of ammonia inhalants for strength athletes, we need to determine whether they influence strength performance. However, there are some limitations to studying the effects of ammonia inhalants.

In research, it is good practice to utilize a placebo when testing potential ergogenic aids. We know that the placebo effect is a real phenomenon that can influence our results. So, three conditions are often present:

  • Treatment
  • Control
  • Placebo

In the treatment condition, the participant is actually given the substance the researchers are testing; in this case, the participants would use the ammonia inhalant. The control, in this instance, would be nothing; the participant simply inhales as normal, with no treatment provided. The placebo would be something that has similar properties to the treatment – usually controlling aspects such as appearance, taste, etc. – but has no physiological effect; so the participant would sniff another substance that could “fool” participants into thinking they had inhaled ammonia.

A placebo, in this case, is quite difficult. If you viewed the video from earlier, the reaction is unique. Furthermore, if you get the observed withdrawal (or repulsive) reaction from another substance, it’s quite likely that it has some real physiological effect (assuming that ammonia is effective, and the effects of ammonia inhalants are based on the “fight or flight” response it triggers).

As you can see, accounting for the placebo effect is difficult. With that limitation outlined, let’s get into what the research has shown.

Are Ammonia Inhalants Effective?

Research in the area is not plentiful; however, we do have several studies we can turn to. Interestingly, only a handful of these studies have been published in scientific journals, with the remainder being conference presentations. 

To start, we will take a look at the research published in journal articles, since we can extract more information from these full articles.

Journal Article Findings

To my knowledge, the earliest study investigating the effects of ammonia inhalants on strength or power was performed by Richmond et al (2014). Twenty-five university-aged males, who had three years of resistance training experience and could back squat 1.5x bodyweight and bench press 1.0x bodyweight, participated in this study. Participants completed repetitions to failure with 85% of 1RM, three seconds after inhaling an ammonia inhalant or Vicks VapoRub. Trial order was randomized and trials were separated by 2-4 days.

The study found no significant difference in the number of repetitions performed after inhaling ammonia or Vicks VapoRub. This was the case for both the back squat and the bench press.

Interestingly, although they had a placebo condition, there was no control condition to compare the results to. But, using the results of each trial to estimate 1RM, the authors compared the estimated 1RM from the pre-testing day with the estimated 1RM calculated on the testing days. No differences were found in that comparison either.

Predicted 1RM (kg)
ConditionBack SquatBench Press
Pre-Test170.7 ± 33.1129.2 ± 20.4
Ammonia Inhalant177.4 ± 39.9129.7 ± 21.2
Placebo176.4 ± 35.5128.9 ± 21.4
Data presented as mean ± SD

So, this initial study showed no effects on performance. This study utilized two major compound exercises; however, the task involved repetitions to failure, which has different demands than a single max effort repetition.

In 2016, Perry et al conducted an intervention study investigating both physiological and performance effects of ammonia inhalants. We’ll primarily focus on the relevant performance effects. 

Fifteen healthy males who had been strength training at least three times per week over the previous year participated in this study. The participants were not habitual ammonia inhalant users; some had previously used ammonia, but none regularly used it in their training. In order to determine the performance effects of ammonia inhalants, participants performed maximal effort isometric mid-thigh pulls for two seconds. This test was performed following no exposure to ammonia, or at various time points after inhalation of an ammonia inhalant (immediately post, 15s post, 30s post, or 60s post). The ammonia inhalant was placed under the nose and inhaled until a voluntary withdrawal reflex occurred. All treatments occurred on the same day, separated by five minutes, with the order randomized.

MeasureTime following inhalation
ControlImmediate15s30s60s
Peak Force (N)1,939
± 636
1,955
± 512
2,025
± 615
1,999
± 613
1,961
± 595
Peak Rate of
Force Development
(N/s)
8,622
± 6,097
9,513
± 4,063
12,385
± 7,511
16,977
± 13,395
11,189
± 7,149
Data presented as mean ± SD

Mid-thigh pulls were analyzed for peak force and rate of force development. There were no statistically significant differences found for peak force, suggesting that the timing of ammonia inhalants did not affect maximal strength in this study. When the peak rate of force development was analyzed, there was a treatment effect with the highest values occurring 30 seconds post-inhalation, but due to large differences in individual responses, no significant differences were found between time points with post hoc analysis.

Briefly, in terms of the physiological outcomes, there were no differences in EMG activity (a proxy measure of muscular activation). However, some changes were observed for the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular responses to ammonia inhalation. Middle cerebral artery blood flow velocity (a measure of blood flow in the brain) peaked about 10 seconds after inhalation, and heart rate increased 15 seconds following ammonia inhalation, while mean arterial pressure remained unchanged. While the observed physiological changes are indicative of cerebrovascular vasodilation, they did not result in performance improvements. 

That’s two studies down. Up to this point, it appears that there may not be any effect of ammonia inhalants on maximal strength. They may have some effect on the peak rate of force development (i.e. explosive strength), but even that evidence is fairly unconvincing. 

In 2018, another study investigating the effects of ammonia inhalants on strength and power was published. Bartolomei et al tested 20 males who had been training at least 3-5 times per week for the last three years (or longer) and were familiar with both weightlifting and powerlifting exercises. The performance tests utilized were a countermovement jump analyzed for peak power, and an isometric mid-thigh pull analyzed for peak force and rate of force development. Three efforts were given for both of the performance tests, and each effort was separated by three minutes of rest. Ammonia inhalants were compared to both a placebo (Vicks VapoRub) and a control (no inhalant). Inhalation occurred for 10 seconds, with the inhalant 10cm away from the participant’s nose. Trial order was randomized and trials were separated by 48 hours.

TreatmentCountermovement Jump Peak Power (W)Mid-Thigh Pull Peak Force (N)Mid-Thigh Pull Peak Rate of Force Development (N/s)
Control4,080.9
± 833.5
3,559.7
± 643.4
11,430
± 3,979
Ammonia Inhalant4,338.9
± 547.7
3,732.8
± 684.7
14,444
± 5,110*
Placebo4,252.4
± 497.2
3,517.7
± 646.4
10,888
± 2,230
Data presented as mean ± SD; * indicates a significant difference compared to other trials

No significant differences were found for countermovement jump peak power or isometric mid-thigh pull peak force. However, peak rate of force development was higher during the ammonia condition in comparison to both the placebo and control conditions, with no difference between placebo and control conditions. These results indicate that ammonia inhalation was unable to improve maximal force or vertical jumping ability, but did enhance explosive strength.

The most recent journal article to investigate ammonia inhalants’ performance effects was also published in 2018. Vigil et al conducted the first study to investigate the effects of ammonia using both male and female participants. Twenty participants (10 males, 10 females) with at least two years of resistance training experience, including the deadlift exercise, completed the study. Participants were first pre-tested for deadlift 1RM; then, in the two subsequent experimental trials, they attempted to lift their 1RM followed by attempts at increments increasing by 2.5%. Fifteen seconds prior to each attempt, participants performed one maximal inhalation (water or ammonia, depending on the treatment) from a small bottle with a hole in the top. Two attempts were provided at each weight and attempts were separated by three minutes of rest. The experimental trials were randomized and separated by three days.

The results? No differences between any of the conditions (baseline, water, or ammonia). Given the average deadlift was 93.0kg for females and 151.8kg for males, 2.5% isn’t as big of a jump above 1RM as it would first seem – approximately 2.3kg for females and 5.5kg for males. However, a smaller jump between attempts may have been more sensitive to any changes.

ConditionDeadlift 1RM (kg)
FemaleMale
Baseline93.0 ± 15.3151.8 ± 42.3
Ammonia
Inhalant
92.5 ± 16.4153.4 ± 37.9
Water92.0 ± 12.5150.9 ± 37.8
Data presented as mean ± SD

We’ve already mentioned the potential impact of not being able to have a suitable placebo, and there are a couple of other issues to consider, with standardization of the dosing and timing being the most important. The subjects in the study by Richmond et al inhaled from microcentrifuge tubes containing the liquids immediately prior to lifting, but with no reference to distance from the nostrils or length of inhalation. The subjects in the study by Perry et al inhaled directly from the crushed ammonia inhalant capsule until voluntary withdrawal at various time points prior to the strength test, but the authors didn’t state a specific distance from the airways. The subjects in the study by Bartolomei et al inhaled from microcentrifuge tubes containing the crushed ammonia inhalant capsule or a liquid (Vicks VapoRub) for 10 seconds with the tube held 10cm away from the upper airways. Finally, Vigil et al had participants perform one maximal inhalation from small bottles containing a crushed ammonia capsule or water, with holes in the top, again with no reference to distance from the nostrils. 

Despite these instances of standardization issues, three of the four studies utilized crushed 0.3mL ammonia capsules that contained 15% ammonia, 35% alcohol, and 50% water. The other study, Richmond et al, did not state the type of ammonia inhalant utilized, except that it was in liquid form. So, although the methods of inhalation differed, the concentration of the inhalants was generally similar.

After exploring all of the published journal articles looking at ammonia inhalants and strength, no positive effect of ammonia inhalants on maximal strength has been documented. Some evidence points towards improved rate of force development, but that data is far from convincing. 

Conference Presentations

I place these in their own section because these publications were only in an abstract or poster format. This means we have less information regarding the methodology and findings, and they haven’t been through as rigorous of a peer review process. Hence, this section will be shorter.

Several conference abstracts have investigated the effects of ammonia on measures of maximal strength and power. Rivera et al (2017) studied 11 participants (8 males, 3 females) who had ≥2 years of experience resistance training. At each testing session, participants deeply inhaled either no inhalant (air), menthol, smelling salts, or a high potency ammonia inhalant, 30 seconds prior to an isometric mid-thigh pull. It appears the smelling salt was a capsule (similar to previous studies), while the high potency ammonia was Nose Tork (which I mentioned earlier). The isometric mid-thigh pull on each of the four testing days was analyzed for peak force and rate of force development. No significant differences were found for any variable. Archer et al (2017) followed similar protocols, with what appears to be the same participant pool, but investigated jump height and sprint times. Specifically, participants performed three countermovement jumps and three 20m sprints at each testing session. Again, no differences in performance were observed. Similarly, Mitchell et al (2015) found no difference between inhaling ammonia or a placebo three seconds before performing vertical and broad jumps.

So far, we have seen very little data to suggest any impact of ammonia inhalants on performance. We did observe an impact on the rate of force development in earlier studies, but this has not been demonstrated in any real-world dynamic tasks.

We are going to stray a little from one-off strength and power tasks to cover two studies that looked at Wingate performance. If you aren’t familiar with the Wingate test, it is a 30-second maximal effort cycling test performed against a load that is assigned relative to body weight (usually 7.5% or 10%). It allows researchers to determine the peak power an athlete can produce, as well as look at the power drop over the course of the test as an indicator of fatigue. 

Witherbee (2014) had nine male participants who could bench press ≥1.0x bodyweight and squat ≥1.5x bodyweight perform a Wingate test immediately following a two-second inhalation of an ammonia inhalant, placebo, or no substance (the control). Each of the three trials was separated by about two days. There were no effects for any of the Wingate test results. Interestingly, Secrest et al (2015) had 10 anaerobically trained males perform a Wingate test before and after a simulated game of American Football. This meant the participants had already trained prior to performing the post-game Wingate. The protocol was performed twice, once with ammonia inhalants and once with no substance inhaled. During the ammonia condition, participants inhaled an ammonia capsule immediately prior to the post-simulation Wingate test. The results showed that almost all subjects improved their peak power (90%) and mean power (80%) in the ammonia condition. For the changes (from pre-game to post-game tests) in peak power and mean power, significant differences were found between the ammonia condition and the control condition (see figure below).

In summary, the conference presentations have again demonstrated no effect on maximal strength or power. However, one study showed improved performance during anaerobic exercise following ammonia inhalation when used after performing previous activity.

My Thoughts

The results discussed have been consistent: no effect of ammonia inhalants on maximal strength. In fact, the majority of studies have demonstrated no effect in a range of performance tasks. Based on the available literature, there doesn’t seem to be much merit in the use of ammonia inhalants.

Personally, my use of ammonia inhalants was almost always saved for the deadlift. This was a trend that was also seen in our 2014 survey: the vast majority of lifters used ammonia inhalants during the final portion of the powerlifting competitions. The last study discussed above, from Secrest et al, demonstrated a positive effect of ammonia inhalants following a bout of exercise. For me, this is an area I think should be investigated further, particularly for maximal strength tasks. To simulate the scenario when ammonia inhalants are most commonly used, I would like to see a project that had strength athletes perform a simulated powerlifting competition, with three maximal attempts on squat and bench press, then test them using an isometric mid-thigh pull. They would do this twice, once with ammonia inhalation, the other without. Using the mid-thigh pull in this first project would allow for small changes to be detected. If this showed positive results, then incorporating a deadlift as the final test in a follow up project would be the logical next step.

One further area of interest would be to psychologically profile participants. Anecdotally, I’ve observed that lifters who prefer to be “hyped up” when they lift will use ammonia, whereas those who don’t get “hyped up” don’t use ammonia. Bryce Lewis suggested using a psych screen as part of a research project; I think this may be another interesting scenario. Profiling participants and then investigating their responses to ammonia use may determine whether a certain type of individual benefits from ammonia inhalant use.

In any case, the use of ammonia inhalants to enhance maximal strength is generally not supported by the literature. If a lifter feels that their use helps them get into an optimal psychological state before lifting, then they should feel free to use them, as we also didn’t see any negative impact on performance from ammonia inhalant use. They may be effective when the athlete is already fatigued, but this hasn’t yet been demonstrated using a strength test. Overall, the current evidence does not support their use.

References

  1. Archer, D., Munger, B., Rivera, M., Leyva, W., Barillas, S., Watkins, C., Wong, M., Dobbs, I., & Brown, L. (2017). No effect of smelling salts on vertical jump height or sprint time. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(S1), S219-220.
  2. Bartolomei, S., Nigro, F., Gubellini, L., Semprini, G., Ciacci, S., Hoffman, J. R., & Merni, F. (2018). Acute effects of ammonia inhalants on strength and power performance in trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(1), 244-247.
  3. McCrory, P. (2006). Smelling salts. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(8), 659-660.
  4. Mitchell, R., Skeen, L., Ramos, T., & Richmond, S. (2015). The effects of smelling salts on broad jump and vertical leap. International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings, 11(3), 53.
  5. Perry, B., Pritchard, H., & Barnes, M. (2016). Cerebrovascular, cardiovascular and strength responses to acute ammonia inhalation. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116(3), 583-592.
  6. Pritchard, H., Stannard, S., & Barnes, M. (2014). Ammonia inhalant and stimulant use among powerlifters: Results from an international survey. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, 22(5), 52-54.
  7. Richmond, S., Potts, A., & Sherman, J. (2014). The impact of ammonia inhalants on strength performance in resistance trained males. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 17, 60-66.
  8. Rivera, M., Archer, D., Munger, B., Leyva, W., Barillas, S., Watkins, C., Wong, M., Dobbs, I., & Brown, L. (2017). Effects of inhalants on force production. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(S1), S191-192.
  9. Secrest, J., Jones, E., & Faries, M. (2015). The effects of ammonia inhalants on anaerobic performance following a simulated American football game: 1293 Board# 86 May 28, 900 AM-1030 AM. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 47(5S), 341.
  10. Velasquez, J. R. (2011). The use of ammonia inhalants among athletes. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33(2), 33-35.
  11. Vigil, J., Sabatini, P., Hill, L., Swain, D., & Branch, J. (2018). Ammonia inhalation does not increase deadlift 1-repetition maximum in college-aged male and female weight lifters. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(12), 3383-3388.
  12. Witherbee, K. (2014). Effect of ammonia inhalants on Wingate performance: 940 Board# 355 May 28, 200 PM-330 PM. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(5S), 258.

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