1. Slow down your tempo on assistance exercises
Many of us are competitive and want to do everything as fast as possible. But with assistance exercises like Dumbbell Rows and Bicep Curls, it's important to control the movement if your goal is muscle growth. Time under tension is crucial for adding size. A group of Canadian researchers published a study in 2011 that found athletes who lifted weight slowly to failure (six seconds up, six seconds down) had greater increases in protein synthesis than those who lifted quickly (one up, one down). So next time you're in the gym, perform your secondary exercises more slowly. Try performing them for at least three or four seconds on the negative portion of the lift. Your muscles are going to burn, but you'll get much better results.
2. Keep rest periods short on assistance exercises
After completing your core lifts like Squats and Deadlifts, move through your accessory exercises quickly. According to fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld, "short rest intervals tend to generate significant metabolic stress, thereby heightening anabolic processes associated with metabolite buildup." In other words, keep your rest periods between 60 and 90 seconds to prime your muscles for significant growth. You shouldn't feel like you're fully recovered between sets. It's challenging both physically and mentally, but you'll reap the rewards if you do it right.
3. Brace your core
Have you ever thought about engaging your core during non-abdominal exercises? If not, you should start right away. You'll get stronger and feel the working muscle a lot more if you learn to create intra-abdominal pressure. Prior to executing a lift, tighten your core as if you were about to be punched in the stomach. If you still don't believe you're stronger with a braced core, try this: Stand still keeping everything in your body loose and have a partner try to push you over. No problem. Now tighten your core, clench your fists, clench your teeth and have your partner try again. You'll be as solid as a rock. Start bracing during all of your exercises.
4. Use lighter weight and focus on "feeling" the working muscle
Unless you're a competitive powerlifter, you're doing yourself no good if you're lifting heavy weight with bad form. Instead of just going through the motions, drop the weight and focus on actually feeling the working muscle. If you don't contract the muscle you're attempting to build, you won't grow that muscle. If you're performing a Dumbbell Row, focus on moving your shoulder blade around your rib cage and squeezing your back muscles. If you're performing a Deadlift with the intention of working your gluteal muscles, focus on actually squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement. Once you master the movement, you'll be able to add weight, build muscle and get stronger.
5. Eat before and after your workout
If you're looking to build lean muscle, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is ignoring nutrition around your workout. Many people fail to fuel their bodies for growth before and after they lift. Your muscles break down during strength training, and they need fuel to repair themselves and come back stronger. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, "when combined with a regular resistance training program, ingestion of a combination of carbohydrate and protein, amino acids or both before and after training leads to improvements in strength, power, body mass, lean mass and intramuscular markers of muscle growth." If your goal is to add muscle mass, consume either a lean protein source like chicken or beef, or a quick source like whey protein with a slower-digesting carbohydrate like oats, about an hour before your workout. Then within two hours after your workout, eat another protein source and a faster-digesting carbohydrate like white rice or potatoes.