Former Cleveland Brown’s offensive tackle Joe Thomas retired last season after a Hall of Fame-worthy 11-year career. He made the Pro Bowl 10 times and played over 10,000 consecutive snaps. Though the NFL doesn’t keep lineman sack statistics, Thomas reportedly gave up only 30 sacks in some 6,600 pass rushes. He’s perhaps the greatest offensive lineman of all time.
But Thomas wasn’t always fit for the line. In fact, his journey to his 325-pound playing weight may be more surprising than his off-season weight-loss transformation since.
Thomas tells Men's Health how he put the weight on and how he took it off.
When I stepped onto Campus at Wisconsin in July of my freshman year, I was 250. They were trying to move me to offensive line. And 250 pounds wasn’t going to cut it.
Just to get to 250 in high school, I would take a loaf of bread and make the whole thing into peanut butter jelly sandwiches. I’d eat a sandwich every 30 minutes on top of my three main meals a day! At the end of the day, I’d chug a 30-35-ounce glass of whole milk right before bed with my last sandwich.
In college during every meal, you eat until that Thanksgiving-I’m-going-to-burst feeling. We also had this drink. It was like a creamer because it looked like a big milk carton. It was 980 calories of mostly fat. By December of freshman year, I had gained 30 pounds. I gained 10 pounds every year until I was 310.
It’s simple physics, you know: the bigger you are, the harder you are to move off your spot. Being bigger is good, especially if you’re able to get bigger at a faster rate than you get slower. Getting up to 325 pounds in the NFL helped me in the run game when trying to move people. In the pass game, I was harder to bull rush.
But throughout my NFL career, it was always a struggle to keep the weight. Most guys feared weigh-in days, because if they were too heavy, they’d get fined. For me, I feared weighing in too light and that the coach would chew me up. It was stressful because if I went two hours without eating a Thanksgiving meal, I knew I was losing weight. So I was the guy that was always sitting at the table cleaning everybody else's plates. I would always order a few appetizers and a couple entrees for myself and then dessert—and then I would finish my wife’s and everybody else's meals. They found it amusing, but it was also stressful. If I went two hours without food, I could have eaten somebody's arm. I was starving. I was probably not a fun person to be around.
"You’re just eating until you feel sick at every meal. And that’s not healthy long term."
My cardio was strong, but I had heart burn all the time, because of the amount of sugar and carbs I was eating. I snored a lot. I probably had sleep apnea. My wife said occasionally I would stop breathing in the middle of the night. Your stomach stretches out and you get used to eating that much. But you’re just eating literally until you feel sick at every meal. And that’s not healthy long term.
Towards the end, I couldn’t wait until I was done playing and could lose weight and move around and feel better and go shoot hoops with my buddies again. I wanted to be the weight I was in high school: 250 pounds.
We had a great dietician on the Browns. Her name’s Katy. She’s awesome. She encouraged me during my last year in the NFL to try the app MyPlate and begin tracking everything I ate—to learn the nutrients rather than just: fill up your plate! finish it!
After I retired, it was really easy to lose that first 20, 30, 40 pounds. I just dialed back my calories to eat like a normal human. But after that, I had to eat smarter. As I tracked my meals, I started to understand my ideal ratio of protein, carbs, and fats. Tracking foods on the app and realizing, wow, this one food has so much added sugar—that was a huge, huge thing for me. My best strategy has been low carb, but flexible—with some intermittent fasting. For me, the fasting has the primary benefit of eliminating breakfast, which for me was 800-1,000 calories. Eating fats and proteins now actually keep me full. When I eat carbs, though, I only get hungrier. Christmas morning, I finished off a stack of 10 pancakes my wife made—probably 3,000 calories. And two hours later I was hungry.
I found that sugars and the high calories food I was eating in copious quantities was actually causing a lot of inflammation too. I'd heard Tom Brady and some other people talk about anti-inflammatory diets and how certain foods affect you and your body, and I always thought that was kind of bullshit. I thought they were like witch doctors. But sure enough, once I went low carb, all of a sudden, my knees started feeling better. The swelling that I walked around with on a daily basis was gone. The pain in my knees had gone.
For exercise, I’m now sensitive of my joints. I do what would maybe be described as bodybuilding lifting. I keep the rep schemes typically higher. I’m doing a lot of single joint exercises. I also fell in love with swimming and biking. Low impact cardio is best, because I’m a bigger guy.
I also love yoga. It makes my body feel REALLY good. It helps my joints and it’s also cardio for me. My wife laughs. She calls it a stretch. But for me it’s a great workout because I sweat heavily. I’m down to 255. I'm actually trying to lose a little bit right now. I guess that's kind of what everybody says.