Weight Training and Cholesterol

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on July 09, 2023
4 min read

After your last annual physical, your doctor warned that your cholesterol is too high. If it stays this way, your risk of heart attack or stroke rises. Doctor’s orders are to get more exercise, among other lifestyle changes.

Maybe you really loathe running 5 evenings a week but enjoy lifting weights at the gym. Can dedicated weight training reduce your high cholesterol by itself?

Medical research has gone back and forth over the years about whether weight workouts and other forms of resistance training lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL) at the same time they increase “good” cholesterol (HDL).

Lately that pendulum has swung toward weight training having a positive impact on cholesterol. But for best results, you should combine it with aerobic exercise like running, swimming, and cycling. And not all weight workouts are the same when it comes to your cholesterol; intensity, style, and frequency matter.

So if you’re counting on pumping iron to attack your cholesterol issue, be realistic from the start. Be a workout strategist.

All about cholesterol

You should know that your total cholesterol is a combination of three types of cholesterol:

Anyone over age 20 should get a cholesterol test (also called a lipid panel) at least every 5 years, regardless of overall health.

How exercise helps

When it comes to weight training or any other form of exercise, ask yourself:

  1. Can it help boost my HDL cholesterol, which absorbs LDL cholesterol and takes it to my liver to be flushed from my body?
  2. Can it help reduce my LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, which can clog my arteries?

To maximize heart health, the American Heart Association recommends you get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. On top of that, add at least two sessions per week of moderate- to high-intensity weight or resistance workouts. Among other exercises, these include:

  • Stretch (resistance) bands
  • Medicine balls
  • Bodyweight exercises such as pushups, squats
  • Dumbbells

Medical research shows aerobic exercise helps reduce your triglycerides and raise your HDL cholesterol. It can be hard to cut LDL cholesterol alongside this, unless you’re improving your diet and losing weight at the same time.

Some research shows low- to moderate-intensity resistance training helps reduce total cholesterol. Other research shows all kinds of weight workouts help with total and LDL cholesterol, but high intensity is needed to boost HDL cholesterol. The same review found people who burn out on cardio workouts can still keep LDL cholesterol on the downswing if they substitute weight training.

Getting the most from your strength workouts

You should see some positive impacts on your cholesterol from weight training -- if you work out the right way. Here are eight suggestions:

  1. Start slow. If you’ve had a long break from the gym, don’t rush yourself. Start with short 15- to 20-minute workouts at lower intensity until you feel comfortable to take on more.
  2. Ramp up when you’re ready. Once you’ve got that down, kick things up a notch. If you’re trying to use resistance training to help manage raised cholesterol, you should push yourself to 75%-85% of your top effort.
  3. High effort doesn’t always mean more weight. Doing more sets with more repetitions has a greater effect on your cholesterol level than lifting heavier weights.
  4. Combine with cardio. Circuit training is one way to get the most help from your gym for your cholesterol treatment. That’s where you lift lighter weights with more repetitions and cut rest intervals to no more than 1 minute in order to get both cardio and resistance benefits.
  5. Mix it up. Vary your routine to avoid boredom. Lift weights one workout and then switch to resistance-based moves like pushups, lunges, squats, and wall-sits. But keep up the intensity on both workouts. Or start on weight machines or free weights, then switch to stretch bands or body-resistance exercises like chin-ups.
  6. Get your heart pumping. If you really like spending time at your gym, use it for your aerobic workouts to lower cholesterol, too. The gym’s elliptical machines, stationary bikes, will do a good job working your heart and lungs if you push yourself.
  7. Warm up and cool down. Don’t forget to stretch before and after your weight workouts. Flexibility is critical to maintaining both aerobic and weight training regimens.
  8. Work out at home. Speaking of flexibility, if bad weather de-motivates you from driving to the gym, do resistance exercises in your living room instead.