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Ammonia inhalant & stimulant use among powerlifters: Results from an international survey

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Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning
Volume 22 | Issue 5 | December 2014
52
Ammonia inhalant & stimulant use among powerlifters: Results from an international survey.
J. Aust. Strength Cond. 22(5)52-54. 2014 © ASCA.
AMMONIA INHALANT & STIMULANT USE AMONG POWERLIFTERS:
RESULTS FROM AN INTERNATIONAL SURVEY
Hayden J Pritchard1, Stephen R Stannard2 and Matthew J Barnes2
1Universal College of Learning, Palmerston North, New Zealand,
2Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
INTRODUCTION
The use of ergogenic aids in competitive sports is extremely common. Athletes across all sports often try to find a
supplement, drug or other product that may give them an edge over their opponents. For example, in a survey of 207
college athletes 89% of those surveyed said they had used or were currently using nutritional supplements (3).
Powerlifters are no exception; they too want something that may give them the edge over their opponents or in many
cases over their own personal best lifts.
Powerlifting is a barbell based strength sport consisting of three lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. The
largest and most prestigious powerlifting federation is the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) (8). A competition
sanctioned by the IPF involves lifters of various weight classes completing three attempts at each discipline, with the
winner of each weight class being the lifter who has the highest combined total of their best lifts. An overall winner is
also awarded using a bodyweight adjusted calculation called the Wilks formula (8). One perceived ergogenic aid used
by powerlifters is ammonia inhalants (AI). AI use is common in powerlifting because as a sport it requires short term,
high intensity efforts that require a high degree of strength, power and speed. Other sports that require similar
characteristics also have anecdotal use of AI’s; sports such as Olympic weightlifting, American football and throwing
events in athletics (14). This is due to the nature of how AI’s influence the human body.
AI’s are also known as smelling salts, they contain ammonium carbonate usually mixed with some kind of perfume which
is sniffed in order to stimulate an individual (12). When sniffed the ammonia gas released from the mixture irritates the
nerve endings within the nose, nasal cavity and lungs. This changes the individuals breathing pattern and causes an
inhalation reflex, increasing respiratory rate and possibly alertness (14). The use of AI’s by athletes as a means of
increasing alertness or a method of “psyching up” has been known to occur for a long time (6), and AI’s are not banned
in the IPF (WADA affiliated), in fact it states in their Technical Rules Book that “A lifter shall not wrap, adjust his costume
or use ammonia within view of the public.” (8). Anecdotal reports suggest widespread use of AI amongst powerlifters
however, to our knowledge, there is currently no research documenting their actual use, or potential ergogenic affects.
Additionally, the use of “pre-workout” supplements and/or energy drinks appears common amongst strength athletes
and powerlifters. The use of “pre-workout” supplements, usually containing caffeine, amino acids, creatine and other
potentially ergogenic compounds, has been shown to have acute (4, 7, 13) and chronic (10) benefits when taken prior
to resistance exercise. Similarly, caffeine ingested prior to exercise may improve measures of muscular strength (1).
While the use of these stimulants is obviously common place in training, their use in competition is currently unclear.
The aim of this study was to determine whether the anecdotal use of stimulants by powerlifters is prevalent within the
sport, as well as whether the users of these stimulants believe them to be effective and safe. If the use of these
stimulants is prevalent in competition, then this would warrant further performance based research into their ergogenic
efficacy.
METHODS
This was an exploratory descriptive study to establish the prevalence use of stimulants among powerlifters from around
the world. The survey incorporated ten questions relating to powerlifters and their use of stimulants, it was divided into
four parts: Use in competition, Use in training, Benefits & side effects, and best lifts. Closed questions were used for all
questions except where a short written response was allowed to explain answers relating to benefits, side effects and
on which lifts it is used. The survey was produced on an online survey website (Qualtrics, Utah, USA) with a link to the
survey activated for participants to access the survey.
The survey was targeted primarily at powerlifters affiliated with the IPF, although the survey link could potentially be
opened by any person with access to the link. The link was sent in an email to powerlifting associations around New
Zealand, Australia, Great Britain and the USA; as well as being posted on world-wide powerlifting related websites and
forums. A total of 313 male participants began the survey with 256 of these participants completing all questions. Mean
competition total for respondents was 661kg 217kg) and average body weight was 101.7kg (± 21.2kg).The survey
was submitted as a low risk notification to the Institutional Human Ethics Committee and was evaluated by peer review
and judged to be low risk. Subjects indicated consent to participate by clicking the next button after the introductory
page of the survey.
Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning
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Statistical analysis was carried out in SAS for Windows v9.3 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC, USA). GENMOD was
performed to analyse the difference in responses where appropriate. Significance was set at p ≤ 0.05.
RESULTS
The most common training frequencies reported by lifters were 3-4 days per week (102 lifters) and 4-5 days per week
(103 lifters). Very few reported training 1-2 days per week (5 lifters) while an equal number trained 2-3 or 6+ times per
week (both 23).
When asked whether they used AI during competition, non-AI users made up the greatest proportion of respondents
(130 of 256; p < 0.0001). Of those reporting AI use during competition, 57 of 126 AI users reported using it for 2-3 lifts
during a competition compared to other attempt options (1 attempt = 15 users, 4-5 attempts = 13 users, 6-7 attempts =
19 users, 8+ attempts = 22 users; all p < 0;001). No difference was evident between the other numbers of attempts (all
p > 0.1).
Of those who used AI during competition, more lifters reported using AI during the deadlift (113 lifters) compared to the
squat (70 lifters; p < 0.001) or bench press (58 lifters; p < 0.001). No statistical difference between use in the squat and
bench press was found (p = 0.23).
The majority (79.7%) of all respondents felt that using AI was safe however 9.8% of users reported side effects from AI
use, but used it none the less. Of those using AI, 78% believed it improved their performance while the remaining users
felt there was no performance benefit to its use.
Fifty two percent of lifters said that they never use “pre-workout” supplements during competition, this was significantly
(all p < 0.0001) the greatest response compared to those who use them rarely (32 lifters), sometimes (26 lifters), often
(29 lifters) or always (36 lifters). For those using “pre-workout” supplements there was no difference between these
various frequencies (all p > 0.1). As with AI use, the majority (78%) of “pre-workout” users felt the products they use are
safe and that they help improve performance (74.7%).
More lifters (88) indicated that they never use energy drinks during competition than those consuming them rarely (32,
p = 0.001), sometimes (35; p < 0.001), often (50; p = 0.0003) or always (51; p = 0.0004). Significantly more lifters
reported using energy drinks often and always compared to rarely (p = 0.033 and p = 0.025, respectively). No other
differences in frequency of energy use were found. Energy drink users felt that these products are safe (78.9%) and
that they help improve their lifting performance (63%). Some users (36.6%) of “pre-workouts” and energy drinks reported
that they had side effects from these products however the majority did not.
The combined use of “pre-workouts” and energy drinks during competition was not popular with 176 lifters never
combining the two (p < 0.01 compared to all other frequencies). No significant difference (all p > 0.1) was seen between
the number combining the two rarely (25 lifters), sometimes (23 lifters) and always (21 lifters). A significant difference
between those combining the two rarely and often was observed (p = 0.019). Finally, a relatively even split of lifters
reported either using (126 lifters) or not using (130 lifters) other stimulants (i.e. coffee, caffeine pills etc.) during
competition.
DISCUSSION
This is the first study that has investigated AI use amongst a group of athletes. Our study has shown the anecdotal
reports of AI use are accurate, with nearly half of the surveyed powerlifters responding affirmatively to having used AI’s
in competition. Interestingly, the majority of those who used AI’s mainly do so on the deadlift (86.9%) compared to the
squat (53.8%) or bench press (44.6%). This is perhaps not surprising given the deadlift is the final lift of the competition
(8), when a lifter may be physically and mentally fatigued and feel the need for assistance. This was reflected in the
comments with lifters stating things such as “usually tiring by now, helps wake me back up”, “feel fatigued during the
end of a comp and need something to wake me up” and “end of the meet, need a boost”. Such a result indicates that
AI use may be of a greater advantage when an athlete is suffering from fatigue; however, more research is needed in
this area.
Energy drinks and ‘pre-workout’ supplements predominantly contain caffeine and, in the case of “pre-workouts” may
additionally contain differing doses of amphetamine analogues and other stimulatory ingredients, depending on the
country and product. Gregory and Fitch (5) suggest that stimulants, including caffeine and amphetamines, are perhaps
the most commonly and under recognised supplements used in sports; the popularity of energy drinks and “pre-workout”
supplements reported here supports this claim.
The strong belief that the stimulants under investigation here are safe is based on limited research and the safety of
these products, both acutely and chronically, is an area that warrants further research. However, in the case of AI’s
there is currently only one negative incident is reported in the literature (6), but caution is advised by others (12, 14).
Both energy drinks and ‘pre-workouts’ act largely through their caffeine content. Beverages of these kinds have been
shown to cause some improvements in performance with minimal side effects (2, 4, 9); while others are more cautious
Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning
Volume 22 | Issue 5 | December 2014
54
and warn of the various complications high doses of caffeine and similar central nervous system stimulants can have
on the cardiovascular system, and nervous system (5)
Irrespective of a lack of scientific evidence into AI’s efficacy as an ergogenic aid, nearly all of those who use AI’s believed
it improved their performance. A similar trend was also seen with energy drink and ‘pre-workout’ users, who believed
these products to be effective in enhancing their performance. Without further, specific testing it is unclear whether these
effects are significant or even real, as the benefits of supplement use is often shrouded in the use of celebrity athletes
for marketing purposes and exaggeration that may raise the expectation of the user to unrealistic levels (11).
Together the lack of information on the benefits and risks of stimulant use in maximal strength sports, especially AI’s,
justifies further research.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
The use of AIs, energy drinks and “pre-workout” supplements during powerlifting competition is commonplace with the
majority of users believing there are performance benefits to be had through their use. Therefore, even in the absence
of substantive scientific evidence, powerlifters looking to enhance their performance on the platform may find ergogenic
benefits through the use of these stimulants; individuals should assess the appropriateness and effectiveness of these
products on their own performance as individual results may vary.
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... C onsidering the importance of physiological arousal before competition (37,52), it stands to reason that many athletes look to various supplements and ergogenic aids to help immediately improve performance (30,41). Therefore, the daily use of nutritional supplements and ergogenic aids has become an everyday necessity for many athletes (7,11,13,30). ...
... Furthermore, within an international survey of powerlifters competing in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), 130 of 256 lifters reported inhalation of AIs during competition. Accordingly, the most used were AIs inhalation before deadlifts (compared with back squat [BS] and bench press [BP]), which is the last discipline of powerlifting competitions (41). Moreover, lifters reported feelings of reduced tiredness and fatigue after inhalation of AIs, and, hence, it may lead to enhance mental concentration which can be crucial during the last lifts of powerlifting competition (41). ...
... Accordingly, the most used were AIs inhalation before deadlifts (compared with back squat [BS] and bench press [BP]), which is the last discipline of powerlifting competitions (41). Moreover, lifters reported feelings of reduced tiredness and fatigue after inhalation of AIs, and, hence, it may lead to enhance mental concentration which can be crucial during the last lifts of powerlifting competition (41). Athletes also state that inhaling AIs helps to create an alert state of mind, which supports succeeding in challenging tasks or at improving performance with less effort. ...
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Ammonium inhalants (AIs) are used to improve athletic performance, but their use has preceded the research process. Oftentimes, strength-based athletes use AIs to postpone acute fatigue or increase arousal. Despite the widespread use of AIs, the amount of research examining its physiological effects, efficacy, and safety is low compared with other ergogenic aids that have been extensively researched. Therefore, the purpose of this review is to provide sports science researchers, strength and conditioning professionals, medical professionals, and other practitioners with the most up to date information about the benefits, risks, and physiological effects of AIs. To date, there is a lack of evidence to support anecdotal claims of increased cognitive arousal and greater strength performance. However, there may be a short-term effect of AIs on the cardiorespiratory system (possibly increasing breathing rate and heart rate approximately 15–30 seconds), but further research is needed to support these findings and to determine how the short-term cardiorespiratory effects may affect other physiological and performance measures. Finally, although evidence does not indicate that AIs are dangerous in healthy populations, sport and health professionals should be aware of the potential risks of AIs to prevent any unlikely, but possible, difficulties.
... Improvements in strength and power performance have been associated with other aromatic compounds. For instance, low concentration ammonia salts (smelling salts) are commonly used by weightlifters to enhance performance [9], despite an equivalence of findings within the literature [9][10][11]. Ingestion of capsaicin, the botanical compound responsible for chilli's heat, has also been shown to improve resistance exercise performance [12]. ...
... Improvements in strength and power performance have been associated with other aromatic compounds. For instance, low concentration ammonia salts (smelling salts) are commonly used by weightlifters to enhance performance [9], despite an equivalence of findings within the literature [9][10][11]. Ingestion of capsaicin, the botanical compound responsible for chilli's heat, has also been shown to improve resistance exercise performance [12]. ...
... Given the established use of aromatic compounds in resistance training, especially prior to maximal efforts [9,16], and the beneficial effects seen with the ingestion of capsaicin prior to strength and short-duration endurance performance [12,17], if menthol were to improve strength or power performance, it would likely be readily accepted by recreational or resistance trained athletes. The presence of ergogenic effects in this instance are unlikely, given that menthol antagonist capsaicin has been shown to improve strength and short-duration aerobic performance [12,17], with an accompanying plausible mechanistic explanation [18]. ...
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... Although some ergogenic aids are banned in training and competition by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), others, including ammonia inhalant (AI) use, are not banned and are used in competition by powerlifters (16,26). In their international survey of powerlifters, Pritchard et al. (22) revealed that 49 percent of all respondents used AI, 78 percent of users felt AI use was ergogenic, and 80 percent of all respondents indicated AI use was a safe practice. AI was typically used for 2 to 3 lifts during a competition (45 percent of AI users) and prior to the dead lift, the last event in powerlifting competitions. ...
... To our knowledge, no studies have examined the ergogenic effect of AI on the 1-RM of any competitive weight lifting event. According to an international survey of powerlifters, 89 percent of AI use was associated with dead lift 1-RM which is the last of three events in powerlifting competitions (22). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the effect of AI use on dead lift 1-RM in college-aged male and female recreational weightlifters. ...
... Secondly, the dead lift is generally considered to be a safe lift for the recreational weightlifters assuming the use of proper technique. Finally, the dead lift is the last lift in powerlifting competitions and the lift most associated with AI inhalation among powerlifters (22). The study protocol is presented in Table 1. ...
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Ammonia inhalant (AI) use by powerlifters and weightlifters is a prevalent practice with little research support for improved performance. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of ammonia as a stimulant on athletic performance during a dead lift one maximal repetition (1-RM) absolute strength test. Subjects (n=10 men, mean±SD age=21±1 years, mass=72.5±6.8 kg; n=10 women, age=22±5 years, mass=66.2±8.1 kg) were required to have at least two years of resistance training experience while lacking a history of asthma, lightheadedness, fainting, anaphylaxis, sickle cell traits, and other respiratory disorders. After a baseline 1-RM test, subjects were paired by 1-RM performance and gender, then randomly assigned in a counterbalanced treatment order to control (water) or ammonia trials after a minimum 72-hour recovery period for another 1-RM test involving attempts at 100.0%, 102.5%, 105.0%, and 107.5% of the established 1-RM value. Testing was then repeated after the minimum rest period for the remaining trial. Results revealed the expected gender main effect for absolute dead lift 1-RM (93.0±29.5 [women]; 152.0±29.5 kg [men] (p<0.001), but no trial main effect (p=0.874) or gender by trial interaction effect (baseline=93.0± 15.3, 151.8±42.3 kg; water=92.0±12.5, 150.9±37.8 kg; ammonia=92.5±16.4, 153.4±37.9 kg) for women and men, respectively (p=0.559). Within the limitations of this study, there is no support for the practice of ammonia inhalation to improve dead lift 1-RM in training or competition.
... Of these factors, only nutrition status and psychological arousal are directly controllable on the day of competition; other aspects of preparation are more variable and must be appropriately addressed in the period prior to competition through training. Given the likely importance of arousal state on performance (Tod et al. 2003), it is unsurprising that strength athletes seek to optimise levels through the use of various nutritional stimulants (Maughan et al. 2007;Pritchard et al. 2014). The short term nature of the strength sports, however, where each maximal effort may be separated by extended rest periods, means that the use of common stimulants, such as caffeine and pre-workout supplements, may not offer the ideal strategy due to the rate of metabolism and unpredictable timing of efforts during competition. ...
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... A recent survey of 256 international powerlifters competing in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) found that 50 % of lifters reported using ammonia inhalants during competition. According to these ammonia users, inhalation reduces feelings of fatigue, tiredness and, therefore, may increase psychological arousal which is particularly important in the later stages of competition; reported ammonia use was highest with the deadlift which is the last lift of a powerlifting competition (International Powerlifting Federation 2012;Pritchard et al. 2014). Anecdotally, comparable levels of ammonia use are likely to occur in the other strength sports where a similar increase in arousal may offer an ergogenic benefit. ...
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... The goal of such 'psyching-up' practices is to increase physical and mental activation, together with focusing attention and theses are employed more commonly as the perception of required effort is increased. For example, the use of ammonia inhalants (designed to irritate the respiratory tract and 'stimulate' the lifter) is greater prior to third attempts (Pritchard et al., 2014). Also, these strategies are likely to be employed more prior to the deadlift, where the load cannot be 'felt' prior to lifting (Pritchard et al., 2014). ...
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... It is reported that many athletes competing in powerlifting and weightlifting use ammonia salt inhalants (AI) before or during the competition (15). Ammonia salts are often inhaled immediately before competition to increase the athlete's focus and aid in "psyching-up" (11). ...
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