531 for Kilimanjaro

531 for Kilimanjaro

Hello, I just wanted to share my experience and start a discussion with what is possible with 531 even if what you practice is not typically associated with strength training. If some of you have had great experiences using 531 for outdoor sports, I would be glad to read about your experiences. Information on strength training for outdoor sports is mostly useless. By chance, I happen to like strength training as well (or more) than outdoor sports.

I used 531 to get in shape to climb Kilimanjaro and it was awesome. My girlfriend and I looking good on the beach at Zanzibar a week after was a nice bonus.

Getting started

From March 2020 to November 2021, Covid restrictions were tough on my training. I stopped strength training because all the gyms kept closing (I live in Canada), my nutrition went to shit and I drank way too much beer during that time. I went from a lean 175-180 pounds to a skinny fat 155-160 pounds. I was still doing some bodyweight stuff and some walking/running/hiking but nothing serious. By chance, I moved from my small apartment and found one where I had a room for a small home gym. So in December 2021, I bought a squat rack with a chin up bar, a barbell, some plates, a flat bench and some dip handles. I simply found all of that on Amazon and Marketplace as people were now returning to the gym and selling their stuff. I added some adjustable dumbbell (5-80 pounds) later on. I didn’t want to stop training because of the government never again. At the same time, me and my girlfriend had decided we would climb Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, in January 2023, so about a year later.

Discipline over motivation

We geared our training toward the goal of reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro right away. So for a whole year, we used 531 and did strength training somewhere between 2 and 4 times a week depending on what the smaller goal was at the moment but mostly depending on time available during those months. For conditioning we put a strong emphasis on walking, running, hiking and backcountry skiing (in the winter). We also did some cycling during the summer and walked up some stairs during the fall. There was a small observation tower of about 4 floors near our home overlooking over the Saint-Lawrence River. Not a bad place to train for elevation gain. We would go up and down about 40-50 times for a training session. You do what you can during the week when you can’t drive to a mountain.

We didn’t do anything crazy honestly in our training but discipline was on point for a whole year and it made a huge impact. We strength trained an average of 3 times a week for the whole year and totaled 1000 km (average of 20 km per week) of dedicated walking, running and hiking. We also totaled more than 20 000m of positive vertical gain in the mountains (average of 400m per week), not counting the stairs training sessions (we had no way of measuring). So like I said, nothing out of reach on a weekly basis. Anyone can do it for a week. We just kept at it for 52 weeks and this is where the magic happened.

At the time, we were both young manager in a medical company which involved long hours. We have friends and family we like to see, and during that year we also bought a land, designed a house and started the construction with everything it comes with. Like everybody, we don’t have more free time to train than anyone.

Strength AND conditioning

531 was my first choice of training. We started really light, we progressed slowly, we set some PRs, we mostly used the 4 main lifts plus some chins, rows, dips, push ups, split squats, step ups, KB swings and some ab work. Legs, back, shoulders and lungs were the main focus of our training. I had to reset my training maxes after 9 months and my girlfriend didn’t have to.

I ate to stay at the same weight and got much leaner (a lot leaner in fact) while staying around 160 pounds. Being heavier is not an advantage at high altitude. My girlfriend ate to loose a little bit of weight but gained a lot of strength anyway since she was new to strength training.

Before starting the training, she was always lagging behind me when we hiked steep hills even if she had run a half marathon during the previous summer (I had not run more than a 5k that summer). After a few months of squats however, she was in front of me. Her new strength coupled with her conditioning gave her an undeniable advantage. As my conditioning improved, we got back at the same level. This is to show that for climbing a mountain, we needed the leg strength AND the conditioning to be able to perform at the highest level.

The climb

Kilimanjaro is a 5895 meters high mountain (19 340 feet). There is no technical climbing, so you don’t need special gear like ropes or ice axes. However, this is a 5 to 8 days expedition (7 in our case). You walk all day, everyday, with a backpack. Temperatures go below freezing most nights. You sleep in a tent on a small pad cramped in a sleeping bag. You are at high altitude, so you are out of breath all the time. My resting hearth rate which was normally around 50-55 bpm shot to 90-95 bpm past 4000m (13 000 feet). This was considered fine.

Most people somewhere during the climb will experience altitude sickness (nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, vomiting or worse). Cost average 3500$US for the climb only. Near 5000$US if you add the flights roundtrip from North America. And you also need expensive gear. So people who pay that much money are normally 100% confident they will succeed reaching the summit and are highly motivated. However, one third of the climbers don’t even reach the top. Most people finish in bad shape. For example, on summit day, a man temporary lost sight. Some others were carried down by guide and porters. Most people had trouble walking the days after. (The descent is the worst part) You go down the mountain in a little more than 24 hours. The first 6 days are to go up and get your body acclimated to altitude.

Leaving from Canada, we did that experiencing 8 hours jet lag following at least two 8 hours flights in economy. We slept two nights in Tanzania before starting the climb so we would have a rest day before starting the expedition.

Despite all of that, we succeeded and had (almost) no ache. Our feet were used to walking a lot so no blisters. Our legs were strong so no problem going down 4000m (14 000 feet) the last 30 hours or so. Our back and shoulders were strong so no problem carrying the pack. But most of all, our mental state was on point! After a year of being disciplined, walking and hiking regularly in all kinds of Canadian weather, training even if we didn’t feel like it, after 10-12 hours shift at work. We felt like nothing could shake us.


The highest mountains near our home are less than 2000m and you have to drive around 6 hours to get to it. That means to prepare for a near 6000m climb, we needed great GPP because it was impossible to get some altitude training. 531 and its core principles provided just that.

Here are some weight room numbers. Before departure, I weighted 158 lbs at 5 feet 8 inches and had the following stats:

  • Pull ups 15 reps at bodyweight
  • Push ups 50+ reps
  • Squat 10 x 250 lbs, 20 x 205 lbs
  • Bench 9 x 185 lbs
  • Deadlift – Not tested before departure but 1 x 365 lbs after my return
  • Press 10 x 115 lbs

I had also hike 60 km, 2600m D+ in a 3-day weekend in October before. It was done with a 30-40 lbs backpack and a few days after I had Covid. Believe it or not, it was easy.

I want to thank Jim for putting together an amazing training program that is easily adaptable to any goals and lifestyle. Mountaineering is far from powerlifting but still, the 531 philosophy and principles made one of my dearest dream possible. I should also mention that we had our best gains using the original 531 with the PR set. Simple training works. And finally, I also want to thank Jim for all the articles on personal responsibility. They helped me a great deal.

P.S. Excuse my English as it is my second language.


Very nice write up.

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My retired boss, and relative through kids, climbed Kilimanjaro a year or two ago. He also peak bagged a non-technical climb on a 20,000+ foot mountain in the Andes about 5 years ago. Having typed that, I have peak bagged 11,000 foot mountains in Wyoming. I think that is my limit. Congratulations on your climb, successful climb, and the beach time on Zanzibar. I am not sure their is anything more romantic than sitting on a beach with your significant other, particularly when you are both confident in your physical appearance.

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I would love to climb similar mountains in the Andes! Do you happen to know which mountain? I’d like to go to Ecuador to climb Chimborazo (and then surf in the Pacific Ocean before coming back home).

11,000 footers are great challenges. I bet the views of Wyoming were amazing.

It was indeed romantic and we had a good time. I bulked back quickly with the buffet since it was all inclusive tough!

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