Cardiovascular disease is one of the most common diseases, which seriously threatens people’s life and health. Therefore, the cardiovascular disease prevention becomes one of the most attractive research topics in health care system design. Intelligent recognition of electrocardiogram (ECG) signals represents an effective method for rapid diagnosis and the evaluation of cardiovascular diseases in medicine. Realization and efficiency of the classification of ECG signals in real time play major roles in detection of cardiovascular diseases. This paper is concerned with the proposition of an intelligent ECG signal recognition method on the basis of convolutional neural network (CNN) and support vector machines (SVM) with an improved antlion algorithm (ALO). First, the ECG signal is denoised and pre-processed by lifting wavelet. Subsequently, CNN is used to extract the signal characteristics of the denoising signal, and the extracted signal characteristics are used as the input characteristics of the SVM. Finally, an improved ALO algorithm is used to optimize the relevant input functions of the SVM to achieve a better signal classification. In our algorithm, the performance is enhanced by improving the threshold estimation method of the lifting wavelet, so as to improve the filtering effect. The proposed CNN architecture is tested with multi-lead ECG signals from the MIT-BIH ECG signal data set. The results display that the method has obtained an average accuracy, sensitivity and 1 Springer Nature 2021 L A T E X template A New Intelligent ECG Recognition Approach based on CNN and Improved ALO-SVM specificity values of 99.97%, 99.97% and 99.99% respectively. Compared with those state-of-arts, our result has a better recognition performance.