From Nerd to Bodybuilder: Embracing Paradoxical Passions

Chappy Asel
11 min readDec 11, 2022
A photo of myself in high school in 2015 next to me posing during a bodybuilding contest in 2022

How does a shy nerd boy from high school find himself flexing on stage in front of hundreds of spectators donning little more than a G-string?

Spray tanned and shaved from head to toe, I strode in front of the blinding spotlights as my name bellowed out over the PA system. Preparing to perform my solo posing routine, I masked first time jitters with a composed facade after hearing judges could sense fear like sharks smell blood in the water. Performing at a bodybuilding competition almost naked in front of a mass of ogling strangers was the culmination of a five-year journey. Once terrified at the mere thought of presenting a powerpoint in front of a small class, it hit me: how did I get here?

I have been enthralled by computers and programming for as long as I can remember. Spending entire weekends squirreled away in my room, I taught myself how to write iOS applications, tinkered with Arduinos and bread board circuits, built custom computers, and reverse engineered electronic toys. Attending Thomas Jefferson, a nationally ranked magnet high school for science and technology, I identified with a peer group who shared my reclusive, geeky passions.

My obsession with technology crowded out all other interests. As it became desperately clear that I needed a second hobby, I started weightlifting during my senior year of high school in an effort to stay in shape. Tentatively, I set out on a path which I hoped would lead me to break out of my comfort zone, explore my physical and mental limits, and finally develop a more well-rounded identity. Embarking on an odyssey with no destination, I knew an opportunity full of growth and exploration awaited.

Growing

An early progress photo from 2017 along with my first basic workout plan

Training

Beginning my weightlifting journey with no prior experience, my first few workouts were a simple smattering of exercises thrown together haphazardly. Without a solid game plan, initial progress was sluggish and my commitment wavered.

Taking inspiration from late nights on Khan Academy teaching myself programming, I turned to YouTube for online coaching. Soaking up hours of content, I found that the videos from Jeff Nippard and PictureFit referencing hard data and scientific literature appealed to me most. Gradually, I developed a basic workout program from recommended exercises that were both achievable and effectual. I could finally see myself getting bigger and my lifts increasing. Feeling inspired, tracking this progress seemed like a natural next step.

Tracking progression, from spreadsheet to Weightlifting App

Tracking

Weightlifting’s quantitative, analytical nature provided an immediate draw for me. Since a key aspect for building muscle is the application of progressive overload — gradually adding weight to the bar over time — it seemed vital to track and analyze my workouts. Finding pen and paper cumbersome, I switched to spreadsheets for record keeping. However, I knew that my aptitude for programming could take tracking and analysis to the next level.

Things immediately clicked as I built out a prototype iOS app over the weekend to log simple workouts. Inspired, I designed a system for tracking supersets and calculating total workout volume. Next, I layered analytical algorithms on top to display per-exercise progress graphs. Crucially, a mutually reinforcing amalgamation began to occur. Programming new features for my app impelled me to test them during a workout while weightlifting itself in return provided the insights and impetus for yet more new feature ideas. For the first time, I could not wait to get to the gym every day.

This synergistic relationship between weightlifting and app development remains the key driver of my passion and perseverance. Weightlifting App is now a top-ten weightlifting app in the iOS App Store with over forty thousand installs and two million total user sessions.

Two screenshots of my weight log spreadsheet: one displaying my first bulk and the other displaying an aggregate graph of my weight over the past four years
The weight log spreadsheet — including my first bulk and an aggregate weight graph

Weight

As my strength ballooned, so did my weight. I felt stronger but still looked like the same pudgy technophile I had always been. Ready to commit to bodybuilding more holistically, I began to explore bulk/cut cycling. Gaining weight via a caloric surplus optimizes for muscle growth while losing weight via a caloric deficit paired with a proper diet disproportionately encourages fat loss. Easier said than done, I quickly came to understand that successfully bulking or cutting requires extensive organization and diligence.

Inspired by the novel synergy I discovered between weightlifting and app development, my disposition for technology took over as I programmed a spreadsheet to log and analyze short- and long-term weight trends. Following months of failing to lose weight consistently, the new system suddenly made logging a breeze and my weight was finally under control.

For four years now I have strategically seesawed an average of over twenty pounds per cycle. Continually utilizing and expanding functionality, the spreadsheet serves as a valuable historical record, platform for planning, and as a daily motivator to weigh in and adhere to my current bulk or cut.

Two screenshots of my nutrition spreadsheet: one displaying a quantitative breakdown of protein sources and the other displaying a breakdown of grains, vegetables, and fruits
The nutrition spreadsheet — including proteins, grains, breads, vegetables, and fruits

Nutrition

Prior to this past year, my entire nutritional strategy consisted of simply maximizing protein intake. However, as progress plateaued, I concluded that it was finally time to take a comprehensive approach to nutrition. As it turns out, more protein is not always better — especially if it comes at the cost of more nutritionally diverse alternatives.

Turning to my quantitative roots, I designed a rich methodology for ranking protein sources according to macronutrient content, micronutrient content, cost, density, preparation time, and taste. Devising my own blended formula, I objectively scored each protein source and upgraded my grocery list. Lean ground turkey in, fatty steaks out. Extending a similar methodology to fruits, vegetables, and grains, I included glycemic index, glycemic load, fullness factor, and nutritional score into my formula. Leafy greens and whole wheats in, frozen pizzas out.

Armed with spreadsheets and rankings, my diet evolved into a comprehensive effort to balance macronutrient and micronutrient consumption while minimizing intake of detriments like cholesterol, saturated fats, and sodium. Since adopting proper nutrition, workout recovery times have improved significantly and adherence to my bulk/cut cycles has been much less burdensome in day-to-day life.

A poster for INBF Battle of the Bay 2022

Committing

Only in retrospect did I realize the tiered nature of my commitment to weightlifting. First was a commitment to maintain general physical fitness. Next, I committed to weightlifting over other athletic pursuits. Then, I committed to high intensity weightlifting and all the intricacies that came with it as opposed to simple athletic maintenance. Now, five years into weightlifting, a new echelon of commitment loomed.

For the first time, I began to consider entering a bodybuilding contest as a way to put years of growth up against an objective measuring stick. Simultaneously, I could feel my inner comfort-in-the-familiar self screaming. Up until now I had kept my passion for weightlifting to myself and in the safety of my exclusive control. Was putting myself out there really worth the risk?

I reflected upon my nerdy self in high school and my foundational intent to use weightlifting as a means of expanding my comfort zone. Readying myself for my biggest carpe diem moment yet, I scoured the web for regional bodybuilding competitions. Stumbling upon INBF Battle of the Bay — a drug-tested show taking place the following year — I embraced the opportunity for growth, signed up, and tailored my next bulk/cut cycle accordingly. Rather than entering with the objective of winning, my intention was to test the waters and determine whether bodybuilding was a passion I wanted to commit to even further.

Show preparation — weight log, workout log, food log, peak week plan, and DEXA body scan results

Preparation

Eight weeks out from the show, my commitment was faltering. I weighed a dozen pounds more than planned despite being 24 weeks into my cut. I needed a small miracle if I still wanted to compete. Reaching deep into the foundations of my passion for weightlifting, I once again turned to my roots in technology as a source of reinforcement and motivation.

I reconfigured my weight log to target losing twenty more pounds in eight weeks. I downloaded a meal tracking app and allotted myself a mere 1700 calories per day — the same daily recommended intake for a 100-pound teenage girl. I updated Weightlifting App with new features to provide extra exercise analysis. Leveraging the synergy I had built between technology and weightlifting, a feeling of reinvigoration washed over me.

Life lived with intensity and purpose develops a momentum of its own. Framing all my decisions within the context of contest preparation put me in maximal control of my schedule which did wonders for my productivity. I eschewed temptation by avoiding alcohol, snacking, and eating out altogether. I weighed in every morning, meticulously logged every single meal, and worked out for 45 days straight.

Two weeks out from the show I took a DEXA body scan which pinned me at 7.2% body fat. To close out show preparation, I designed a meticulous “peak week” plan based on a peer reviewed analysis I found. Following this regimen to a T, I entered the weekend looking better than I ever had before. With the journey of discovering and pushing past my limits complete it was time to take the final step, overcome my fears, and put my entire self out there.

Showtime

Feelings of apprehension peaked as I arrived at the venue for 8am roll call. Despite years of learning and training, I still didn’t feel like a bodybuilder. My unshakable identity as a shy technology nerd felt deeply incongruous. Yet heading backstage after the debriefing, the energy was palpable. The camaraderie amongst the contestants, so different from the hyper-competitive atmosphere I had anticipated, put me at ease.

I immediately felt more at home as I struck up conversations with fellow competitors. In the same way I had a cohort to share my nerdy passions with in high school, I finally found a peer group who understood what it was like to go to sleep hungry every night, to skip nights out with friends, and to drop commitments just to squeeze in another workout. Maybe, just maybe, I did belong on stage.

Showtime. As I strode on stage my adrenaline spiked and my legs started cramping as dehydration took hold. Unfazed, I held myself together and took in the moment. Here was the culmination of five years of growth, learning, and hard work. A minute felt like an eternity. As music thundered throughout the venue, I began my solo posing routine and let instinct take over. In a thrilling stroke of fortune and quick-wittedness, I nailed all 25 of the poses and transitions which I had memorized only the night before. I had done it. Walking triumphantly off stage, I finally had the confidence to grant myself ownership over a new facet of my identity. I am a bodybuilder.

Embracing Paradoxical Passions

Weightlifting has a way of indirectly teaching a variety of profoundly important life lessons. Building and flexing not only physical muscles but also the hypothetical willpower muscle. The value of grit, essentialism, and intense focus. Daring greatly and unapologetically presenting oneself to the world. However, the most powerful lesson learned has been in embracing seemingly paradoxical passions — harnessing my innate nerdy zeal for programming and statistics as a key to unlocking success in my newer passion for weightlifting.

Marc Andreessen’s Guide to Career Planning introduces the notion of “[seeking] to be a double/triple/quadruple threat.” Rather than striving to be the best at one specific thing, it is both more effective and efficient to become very good (say, top quartile) at a composite set of skills. The less these skills overlap, the more unique your identity and skillset becomes.

Driving this home, David Epstein’s book Range contrasts “T-shaped” individuals — those with a broad range of interests and experiences — to “I-shaped” individuals who are deeply specialized in a single domain. As the internet and communication technology makes it easier than ever to leap straight to the cutting edge, it is the unique “T-shaped” individuals that can bridge troughs of knowledge who are set to thrive, uncovering the most uncommon and innovative insights that will truly change the world.

“Big innovation most often happens when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution.”

Embracing paradoxical passions leads to the formation of the most profoundly unique identities. I will likely never become the most prolific programmer or most successful bodybuilder but combining the two may lead to a more distinctive outcome than optimizing for one singular skill. Embracing their synergies and novel co-reinforcing nature allows for a special form of broad, holistic growth.

The Future

After accruing years of learning and growth just to get here, I viewed the competition as merely another step in my bodybuilding journey and carried modest expectations of success. To my immense surprise and joy, I placed second in the Men’s Novice Bodybuilding category. After the show I received astonishingly positive feedback from the head judge. If I commit fully to bodybuilding by getting a coach, practicing my stage presence, and conditioning my legs, he thinks I can compete for a pro card and qualify for the annual WNBF World Championships in Las Vegas.

While I certainly have my work cut out for me, my motivational flame burns more intensely than ever. When I started this journey as a shy nerd boy back in high school, stepping on a bodybuilding stage was not even within the realm of possibility. Now, five years into this odyssey of self-exploration and growth across all of life’s facets, I welcome with open arms the challenge of upping my commitment and competing for a pro card.

Weightlifting has been a channel by which I have expanded my comfort zone beyond the inherently lonesome craft of programming, explored my physical and mental limits, and consequently developed a more well-rounded identity. As I see it, the skills I built and lessons learned while weightlifting carry a broad applicability to life. Fostering willpower, practicing the art of essentialism, daring greatly, and embracing my paradoxical passions form a unique foundation for growth as I venture onwards and upwards with insatiable ambition.

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Chappy Asel

Passionate about tech, futurism • Co-founder, CEO @ Cofactory, Co-founder @ The GenAI Collective, Angel Investor • ex-Apple AR/VR + AI/ML, ex-Meta • Bodybuilder