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Smelling Salts Vs Pre Workout - Which Give You More Of A Pep!

Published by Kieran
Last Updated on July 28, 2022

What's The Difference Between Smelling Salts And Pre-Workouts?

We see athletes use smelling salts in powerlifting competitions, and we know that pre-workout supplements help enhance physical performance for intense workouts. 

So, which one of them can give you more of a pep?

Read on to get the answer and learn their differences, positive and negative effects, and usage along the way. 

Smelling Salts Vs Pre-Workout Supplements

Smelling Salts

The history of smelling salts goes back hundreds of years. 

It has been and is still used to revive fainting people.

Today, athletes also use it to get a cognitive boost and enhance performance. 

Smelling salts are actually ammonia inhalants that offer stimulant effects.

They typically contain a combination of diluted ammonia, water, and ethanol. They can also be a combination of ammonium carbonate and perfume. 

How Smelling Salts Work

Smelling salts work by releasing ammonia gas. 

If you've ever smelled ammonia, you know how strong it smells and the burning feeling it causes your nose.

If you don't, imagine inhaling an extremely strong mint or any strong smell that burns your nose, except it doesn't smell nice at all. In fact, people have compared the sensation to being "kicked in the face."

When you inhale smelling salts, you inhale a small amount of ammonia gas. 

Inhalation of ammonia gas will irritate your nose and respiratory system and alter your pattern of breathing.

Inhalation Reflex

The irritation in your nasal and lung membranes will trigger your body's involuntary inhalation reflex or respiration. 

This reflex causes you to breathe faster, resulting in an increase in heart rate and oxygen delivery in your system. Oxygen plays a big role in muscle function, energy production, endurance, and recovery. 

Fight-Or-Flight Response

Aside from that, rapid breathing from the smell of ammonia can stimulate your body's fight-or-flight response.

The fight-or-flight response triggers the release of adrenaline.

Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, increases blood circulation, heart rate and breathing rate. It also causes our liver to release glucose that will provide us with energy.

Our pupils will dilate, making us see clearer even in the dark. Lastly, it reduces our perception of pain so that we perform past our usual limits. 

Basically, our bodies will be provided with the things it needs to escape, eliminate, or avoid danger. Think of it as our animal instinct to survive. 

But even when not in danger, we can use what is essentially a turbocharger to go past our limits.

Negative Effects Of Smelling Salts

When used as directed, smelling salts are generally safe. They shouldn't have any long-term effects when used in low doses. But, ammonia is still a toxic substance at the end of the day.

Smelling salts can sometimes cause headaches.

The irritation that causes its positive effects may also cause adverse effects when the irritation is too much. It can cause damage to the upper airways and lungs.

Also, sometimes while inhaling smelling salts, people can get a neck or head injury from jerking due to shock from the pungent smell or as a reflex to move away from the irritant.

There is also a rare possibility of allergic reaction. 

The real danger of smelling salts is not from the direct effects of it but rather what people do with the adrenaline-boosting effects they get. 

As mentioned above, smelling salts, or rather the fight-or-flight response it triggers, enables us to go past our limit.

But, pushing beyond our limits is not always a great thing. There are still safe limits we need to keep, and the effects of smelling salts inhibit our body's natural defences. 

An energized person, especially a devoted player in an important competition, may ignore those limits, which can cause injuries. And since adrenaline affects our perception of pain and can offer dulling of pain, some may even ignore their injury and still keep going when they shouldn't. 

This is exactly why smelling salts are banned in boxing competitions. Before they were banned, boxers who could barely stand used them so that they could continue to fight - even when they shouldn't. 


The most common forms of smelling salts are one-time-use ammonia capsules and bottles. 

To use the capsule, you need to snap it to mix the contents, smell, and throw it away. 

To use the bottled ones, you might need to add water to some cotton balls first to activate the ammonia. You then close the bottle and shake the contents together with the wet cotton ball to release ammonia. After that, you can open the lid and take a whiff. Close the cap after use, and you can open and use it again multiple times. 

Whatever form of smelling salt you use, it's crucial to hold them at least 10 centimetres, or about 4 inches, away from your nose. 

The ideal distance is 10 and 15 centimetres from your nose. This distance allows the product to work while preventing damage in your nasal passages from too much irritation. 

Smelling salts should be used as close to when you need them as possible. That's why powerlifters wait until the last minute to use them. The effects of smelling salts are fast-acting and short-lasting.

You should also only use them as needed. It's not good to use them regularly. 


Pre-workouts are supplements that help you perform better during workouts. They give you energy, strength, endurance, and mental clarity.

Their formula usually contains stimulants and/or energy boosters, and other dietary supplements that can enhance performance in intense physical activities. 

How Pre-Workouts Work

Essentially, pre-workout supplements give you the energy, macronutrients, and other compounds to help you make the most out workout and even enhance performance when needed. 

For example, caffeine in pre-workouts can help improve concentration and offer a burst of alertness. It also increases energy and reduces fatigue.

The Nitric oxide precursors relax the blood vessels. That makes the blood flow and oxygen delivery to the muscles increase. 

Beta-alanine allows you to use your muscles more and for longer. 

Caffeine, Nitric oxide precursors, and Beta-alanine are just some of the many ingredients a pre-workout formula can have. 

Negative Effects Of Pre-Workouts

The possible side effects of pre-workout supplements will depend on the ingredients in the formula.

Since there are many variations, there are also many potential negative effects. 

Stimulants mainly cause the more common side effects. 

  • Jitterness
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Headaches

Other ingredients can also have some side effects, such as Nitric oxide precursors (headaches and migraines), Beta-alanine (tingling sensation), and Creatine (water retention).

Other potential side effects include:

  • Tolerance And Dependency
  • Migraines
  • Water retention
  • Bloating
  • Weight gain
  • Nausea
  • Tingling Sensation
  • Red Patches (Flushing)
  • Interference with some medications
  • Interference with blood glucose levels


The term "Pre-workouts" can pertain to a pre-workout meal, drink, or supplement. You should take it at least 30 minutes before working out to get the performance-enhancing effects.

You should take it on an as-needed basis rather than in regular doses to avoid the adverse effects, especially those associated with the stimulants in the formula. 

So, Which Give You More Of A Pep?

In short-term use? Smelling salts.

For long-term use? Pre-workouts. 

If you need a one-time big-time boost, like for a competition, smelling salts will help with that.

But, if your goal is to make the most out of your workout session, pre-workouts are the way to go. 

The intense effects of smelling salts on gross motor strength can reduce fine motor skills and negatively affect your form - which is a no-no for regular workouts. 

Final Words

Both smelling salts and pre-workout supplements can have both positive and negative effects on your athletic performance and overall health.

Using them only as directed is essential to avoid any adverse effects.

Set a clear goal and utilize which one can help you reach that goal.

Hope this article helped.

See you on another one!

About the author
Published by Kieran
A star athlete during his school days, Kieran quickly excelled at sports and in particular; football. Kieran's true passion lies in home exercise equipment, and so was was built as a source for all of Kieran's thoughts to be put down on a medium. Here he guides you through various nuances of working out at home, tips, guides, reviews and more.The only other thing Kieran enjoys more than working out, is writing about it.
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