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Mattress Firmness Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Choose the Right One

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Written by: Alex Savy
Read 19 minLast updated on January 19, 2023

Shopping for a new mattress can often feel overwhelming. After all, the market has a lot to offer, especially when it comes to comfort options

How do you choose among all those Plush, Luxury Firm, Medium, and a dozen other mattress types?

That’s what we are going to look at in today’s mattress firmness guide. Let’s learn about the main differences between mattress firmness levels and find out which one would work for you the best. 

Key takeaways

  • Mattress firmness level is rated from 1-10, ranging from soft to medium and firm. That being said, we only ever test mattresses with firmness levels between 5 and 9. 
  • You can choose the mattress firmness suitable for you based on your weight and sleeping position, in a way that average-weight back sleepers are recommended to use medium-firm, average-weight side sleepers or lightweight sleepers softer, and average-weight stomach sleepers or heavy sleepers firmer mattresses.

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Understanding Mattress Firmness Levels

So, how do you rate the mattress firmness? 
Typically, manufacturers use a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the softest and 10 – the stiffest. However, some of them may seem confusing (especially the “dual” options like medium-firm or plush firm), so let’s take a closer look at that scale: 
Mattress Firmness Levels

  • Ultra-soft to very soft, or 1-3 on the firmness scale. To tell the truth, it might be hard to find a mattress as plush as that. But they do exist. Such soft models typically offer a lot of sinkage and an extremely generous hug. Don’t expect too much support though, especially if you aren’t a petite sleeper. Such mattresses typically have extra-thick comfort layers that may not feel sturdy enough to provide substantial support.
  • Soft, or 4 on the firmness scale. This firmness level can offer more support combined with a noticeable amount of sinkage and cradling. The comfort layers are slightly thinner in such mattresses, so users can benefit from the support that the core layer provides without feeling overly hugged or stuck in the mattress.
  • Medium, which is often rated 5. This firmness level is quite popular as it offers a rather balanced feel. The comfort layers are relatively thick but they are usually balanced out by the dense, sturdy support layer. Such mattresses feel plush but don’t allow for excessive sinkage.
  • Medium-firm, or 6 on the firmness scale. Being among the most widespread options on the modern market, medium-firm mattresses usually reach that golden middle between cushioning and support. They work to deliver a decent level of pressure relief without sacrificing proper weight distribution (unlike many softer mattresses). This firmness level is suited for a wide variety of sleepers and remains one of the most favorite options on the market. 
  • Firm, typically rated 7-8. Such mattresses usually make sleepers feel like they are lying on top of their bed (instead of feeling cradled by the mattress). Firm models deliver resilient support and often give sleepers a light push back instead of providing that sinking feel. This firmness level is great for those users who aren’t looking for much of a hug.
  • Very firm, or 9 on the firmness scale. This firmness level offers even less of a hug (practically none). It usually works the best for those sleepers who don’t want any sinkage at all or heavier individuals who require more support.
  • Extra-firm, or rated 10. To tell the truth, it’s hard to find a mattress that would truly feel like a 10, as most best-rated extra-firm mattresses are usually rated around 9. Nonetheless, a mattress with a 10/10 firmness rating should feel extremely sturdy and isn’t likely to offer any pressure relief at all. In my opinion, it should feel like sleeping on the floor with just a blanket used for padding.

Is Mattress Firmness the Same As Support? 

Firmness and support might seem like similar notions, but they mean two different things. Support is the mattress’s ability to keep the body (especially the spine) in a proper alignment. Firmness, however, refers more to the comfort aspect. It’s the initial feel sleepers experience when lying down on the mattress.

Is Mattress Firmness the Same As Support

Thus, a soft mattress can be supportive nonetheless, and not all firm models can deliver reliable support. That’s why it’s crucial to pay attention not only to the firmness level but also to the composition of the mattress. To provide reliable support, it has to have a sturdy, quality core (base layer). If it’s memory foam, the base layer has to be dense. If the core uses coils, they have to be thicker (of a lower gauge).

What Is Luxury Firm?

Understanding mattress firmness options can be difficult when new terms come into play. And Luxury Firm is one of them.

But how does a Luxury Firm mattress actually feel, you may ask?

Well, to tell the truth, it depends on the manufacturer. Companies can label their mattresses Luxury Firm but may use different materials and constructions to achieve a certain feel. That’s why two Luxury Firm models from two different mattress companies aren’t likely to feel the same.  

The label on this mattress says it is a Luxury Firm
The label on this mattress says it is a Luxury Firm

However, when manufacturers call their mattresses Luxury Firm, they are all trying to offer a specific comfort level. Typically, Luxury Firm mattresses are supposed to deliver a moderate amount of contouring while maintaining firm support. Basically, a Luxury Firm mattress is usually a firm model with some padding on top (often designed as a pillow-top).

Luxury Firm vs Plush Firm

Let me warn you right away: when you look at the Luxury Firm vs Plush Firm mattresses, you will hardly find any differences. These are just two slightly different names that manufacturers use to describe a specific type of mattresses – not too firm, not too soft. As I’ve said before, these mattresses typically have a sturdy support layer (hence the Firm in the name) and some extra padding on top for added plushness (that “Luxury” component).

Cushion Firm vs Luxury Firm

When shopping for a new mattress, you may also stumble across models labeled Cushion Firm. 

Naturally, you would think: what makes it stand out from the rest of the Firm models?

The answer is quite simple: if you check the comparison Cushion Firm vs Luxury Firm, you will be likely to discover the same comfort levels. Cushion Firm is just another name manufacturers use to describe firmer mattresses that feature some extra padding. It’s safe to say that all these names are just a technicality, as they are used to label pretty much the same mattress firmness level.

How to Choose a Proper Firmness Level: Your Sleeping Position

The most important part of our mattress firmness guide is linked to your preferred sleeping position. You see, to pick an appropriate firmness (and to enjoy the highest comfort levels), you need to account for the way you sleep. Each sleeping position has specific firmness requirements, so let’s take a closer look at them: 
  • Sleeping on your back. Sleeping on one’s back is considered the healthiest position as it allows for the best conditions for proper spinal alignment (1). If you combine this sleeping position with a good chiropractor-recommended mattress, chances are your spine will remain healthy for a long time. But don’t forget that you also need to pick a suitable firmness level. Back sleepers usually require medium or medium-firm mattresses (5-6 on the firmness scale). Such a firmness level allows the spine to remain in a neutral alignment, which also results in proper weight distribution and support. Back sleepers need just a bit of sinkage for their hips and buttocks, that’s why soft and firm mattresses don’t usually work for them. I sometimes sleep on my back, and a medium-firm mattress allows me to sleep relaxed with my back completely contoured and supported. I can’t stand having my back sink into the mattress with the softer models.
Mattress firmness levels sleeping on your back
  • Sleeping on your side. Side sleepers need a generous hug and cradling pressure relief. They can develop painful pressure points, which is why their protruding body parts require enough sinkage and lots of cushioning. Therefore, soft and soft-to-medium mattresses are usually the most appropriate for this group of sleepers. Anything rated 4-5 should do. Side sleepers also benefit greatly from mattresses that offer zoned support (variable firmness in different sections for different body parts). As a side sleeper myself, I need my shoulders and hips completely relieved, because I spend most of my nights sleeping on the sides. If those spots don’t get the proper pressure relief with a soft or medium mattress, I can’t get the quality sleep I need.
Mattress firmness levels sleeping on your side
Mattress firmness levels sleeping on your side
  • Sleeping on your stomach. A suitable mattress for stomach sleepers has to offer reliable support. This position does not typically require any sinkage (in order to avoid that uncomfortable bowing of the lower back). Therefore, stomach sleepers usually benefit from sleeping on firmer mattresses (rated 7 and up on the firmness scale). 
Mattress firmness levels sleeping on your stomach
Mattress firmness levels sleeping on your stomach
  • Combo sleepers. If you tend to switch positions when sleeping, you need a mattress that won’t restrict your movements (that’s the most important part). You can check resilient latex beds or nicely balanced hybrid mattresses that deliver bouncy pressure relief. And as far as the firmness goes, combination sleepers typically enjoy using medium or medium-firm mattresses. Models rated 5 or 6 usually have a balanced feel and aren’t very enveloping, which means they won’t be likely to make you feel stuck when you decide to switch sleeping positions.
    Mattress firmness levels combo sleepers
    Mattress firmness levels combo sleepers

Sleeping Position

Firmness ratingFirmness levelRelief points
Side sleepers
firmness mattress for side sleepers
4-5Soft or soft-to-mediumHips, shoulders
Back sleepers
firmness mattress for back sleepers
5-6Medium or medium-firmSpine, hips, buttocks
Stomach Sleepers
firmness mattress for stomach sleepers
7+FirmStomach, lower back
Combination sleepers
firmness mattress for combo sleepers
5-6
Medium or medium-firmBalanced on all body parts

How to Choose Firmness According to Your Weight

Another important aspect many shoppers forget about is the weight of the sleeper. Because your weight determines how much pressure you are going to put on the mattress, it might also affect the way your mattress would feel. And while one firmness level can work perfectly fine for some users, it might seem extremely uncomfortable to others (those who belong to a different weight category).

So, here are the general recommendations for all weight groups:

  • Petite individuals (130 pounds and less). Lightweight users don’t put that much pressure on the mattress. Their weight is sometimes not enough to sink deep enough into the comfort layers. Additionally, lightweight users can easily develop painful pressure points even when lying on mattresses that are supposed to work for their favorite sleeping position. That’s why petite sleepers are usually advised to choose softer mattresses for each sleeping position. Softer mattresses have plushier comfort layers, so the risk of experiencing too much pressure on the protruding body parts is minimal in this case.
  • Average sleepers (130 – 230 pounds). For average individuals, the choice of the mattress firmness level should be based on their sleeping position, not body weight. Therefore, all the previously described recommendations concerning different sleeping positions would work for average-weight individuals. I am average weight as well, so for me, my sleeping position decides my preferred mattress firmness.

mattress firmness levels average weight sleepers

  • Heavier folks (230 pounds and more). Larger users often sink in too deep (and might even come into contact with the sturdy support core). This can totally ruin the feel of the mattress. Heavier folks require more support and a stiffer sleeping surface for any of the sleeping positions. That’s why it is recommended to go with stiffer mattresses (just choose a higher firmness rating when considering the recommendations mentioned above). For example, while average side sleepers are recommended to choose mattresses rated 4-5, heavier individuals may want to go with models rated 5-6 (maybe even 7, if you don’t have tender joints).

mattress firmness levels heavier folks weight sleepers

How to Understand Mattress Firmness at Home

To understand mattress firmness at home, you can easily test it yourself. Here’s how. 

Firstly, you can sit down on the mattress and measure its sinkage by the way it feels, from soft to firm. Secondly, you can drop a 10-pound medical ball on the mattress and measure the mattress sinkage and depth.

Based on my experience, if the sinkage is more than 3 inches, the mattress is softer, between 3 and 1.9 inches it’s medium or medium-firm, 1.5 - 1.9 - firm, and less than 1.5 it’s extra firm. 

The way I test the mattress for their firmness is similar. I try to do the test mentioned above, and besides that, I lie on the mattress to check the overall feel. I also sit on the edges of the mattress and check how much it sinks. That’s how I can make a final assessment.

How to Choose the Firmness for People With Health Problems: Firmness Chart

If you or someone you know is dealing with a certain health issue, and you're dwelling on the mattress firmness proper for the condition, check out the guide I’ve prepared below based on the firmness suitable for each health condition. But keep in mind that for your specific conditions, you will still have to consult a doctor.

  • Back pain. People who suffer from back pain are usually recommended by doctors to use firm mattresses with a firmness rating of about 7 or more. Our bodies naturally require a firm sleeping spot to align the spine and support the back, so a soft mattress would just make the condition worse. 
  • Sciatica. Same with back pain, sciatica deals with lower back pain problems, so a firm or medium-firm mattress is once again great for it. You can target anywhere between 6-7 on the firmness scale. The reasoning behind the medium-firm rating being proper for sciatica is that the lower back pain and the buttocks need to be properly contoured and supported but not go under too much pressure because they are pressure points anyways. So, a very firm mattress might bother the lower back a bit depending on bone sensitivity. 
  • Scoliosis. For scoliosis, the spine needs to be supported and relieved. So a medium-firm mattress with a rating of about 6 is the one you could go for. The goal is to not sink into the mattress and have your spine curve fully supported. However, depending on the weight, heavier folks can go for anything around 5-6 on the scale. 
  • Arthritis. The ideal firmness for people with arthritis is about 5-6, which is medium or medium-firm. Depending on your sleeping position, you can also go for a firm mattress, as I’ve explained in the section above about sleeping position.
  • Hip pain. This condition has more to do with your muscles, so to put your muscles at ease, you will need to provide a soft or medium mattress so it can be contoured and pressure can be relieved from them. You can target anywhere around 4-5 on the firmness scale with the condition.
  • Osteoporosis. For people with this condition, a soft mattress can be harmful due to the spine getting out of its natural alignment on such mattresses. Mattresses with a firmness of 5-7, which is medium-firm to firm can be helpful to deal with osteoporosis.

What Firmness Level to Choose When in Doubt

Many shoppers often don’t know what they need. After all, choosing mattress firmness involves multiple aspects, some of which may sometimes seem confusing.

If that’s the case and shoppers aren’t sure what firmness would work for them, the safest option is typically medium to medium-firm. Such mattresses are considered universally comfortable and can satisfy a wide range of sleepers.

And here’s the good news: most mattress companies offer free in-home trials with their products. Therefore, if the chosen mattress firmness does not work, sleepers can return the mattress and try a different one.

My Personal Experience and Preferences

I’ve tested quite a lot of mattresses, and since I am an average weight (210 pounds) side sleeper and occasionally back sleeper, I tend to feel much more relaxed sleeping on medium-firm mattresses. They contour and support my back and spine and help relieve so much pressure from my hips and lower back. Softer mattresses usually make me sink and firmer ones hurt my joints or bones after a few nights. So, I prefer mattresses with 6-7 firmness ratings. I have never tested mattresses softer than 5 and firmer than 9 since they each lack something, either the ability to support or contour sensitive body parts.

F.A.Q.

What is a Luxury Firm mattress?

A Luxury Firm mattress is typically the one that offers sturdy, reliable support but uses some padding on top to provide some cradling.

What mattress firmness do hotels use?

In most cases, hotels use medium-firm mattresses that are meant to work for a wide range of sleepers.

Is it better to sleep on a hard or a soft mattress?

It depends on your body weight and preferred sleeping position. An overly soft mattress can cause back pain, while an extra firm bed can lead to painful pressure points and stiffness in your body. That’s why it’s crucial to pick a mattress according to your weight and the way you sleep.

Do side sleepers need firm or soft mattresses?

Side sleepers are recommended to pick soft to medium-soft mattresses (average-weight individuals). Petite side sleepers usually feel the most comfortable when lying on softer mattresses. Heavier side sleepers can use medium or even medium-firm beds.

How do I know if my mattress is too firm?

When your mattress is overly firm, the main sign is waking up with back, shoulder, or neck pain. If you wake up in the middle of the night and feel discomfort, it might also mean that your mattress is too stiff for you.

What firmness of a mattress is the best?

The best mattress firmness for anyone depends on their own sleeping position, weight, health conditions, etc. So, there isn’t any single mattress firmness that works best for everybody.

What is the most popular mattress firmness?

A medium-firm mattress with a rating of 6-7 is the most commonly accepted and preferred one, since it’s the perfect balance between firm and soft, provides enough support for the back and the spine, and prevents the body from sinking.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, the comfort level of each mattress is quite subjective.

But now you know how to choose something that would work for you perfectly. All you have to do is think about your favorite sleeping position and the desired feel of your new mattress.

Now, how do you usually sleep? And what mattress are you currently using? Does its firmness suit your requirements? Let us know in the comments!

References:

  1. Stephen Gill (January 02, 2020). How should you sleep if you have lower back pain? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320870 

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