Plush vs Firm Mattresses: Which One Would Work for You? Back Pain and Arthritis?

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Written by: Alex Savy
Read 12 minLast updated on February 17, 2023

While some people love sleeping “on a cloud”, others compare it to sleeping in a hammock and prefer stiff surfaces.

The eternal debate between soft and firm mattresses makes many shoppers doubt what bed they need exactly.  And with the variety the modern market has to offer, the indecisiveness only grows further.

Don’t worry though: today, we will take a close look at the plush vs firm mattress comparison and see which option would be most suited for you.

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Mattress Firmness Rating Explained (And Why It Matters)

Now, you may be wondering:

“What exactly is a soft (or firm) mattress? How can you measure the way it feels?”

Mattress firmness scale

Allow me to explain. Virtually, all mattresses can be assessed by a firmness scale. Rating from 1 to 10, it implies the overall feel of the bed, with 1 being the plushiest and 10 being the firmest.

So, anything that’s rated from 1 to around 3 would have a plush feel. A mattress rated 4 would have a medium-soft feel. Mattresses that belong to the firm category would rate from around 8 to 10. The rating of 7 would make a mattress medium-firm. And any model rated 5 or 6 would have a medium feel.

Now, it’s important to note that the overall feel of the mattress would depend on you in the first place. Your weight, body type, and favorite sleeping position would determine the comfort (and firmness) level of the mattress suited specifically for you.

Here’s the deal though: while a firm or a soft mattress can affect how comfortable you would feel during sleep, the firmness level matters due to other factors, including the health of your spine. Why? Because the appropriate firmness would create enough support for your back.

When the mattress is too firm, the protruding parts of your body kind of crash into it, creating pressure points and preventing the spine from resting in a neutral position.

At the same time, if the mattress is overly plushy for your body type, it would allow for too much sinkage. This can lead to unnatural curves in your spine that may cause back pain and a poor sleeping posture.

So, the main question is: which option would be better suited for you? Let’s consider the most important factors that could help you make the right choice.

Plush vs Firm Mattresses: Weight Considerations

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s important to consider your weight when looking at the plush vs firm mattress comparison. One model would have a different feel when used by sleepers of various body types.

Plush vs Firm Mattresses

Let me give you an example. Let’s say we have a mattress that the manufacturer rates as Medium-Firm (7 on the firmness scale). When an average user (approximately between 130 and 230 pounds) sleeps on this mattress, they would probably agree with this rating. However, if the same mattress is used by a lightweight sleeper (below 130 pounds), they would perceive it as a Firm bed and rate it around 8 or even 9. Just like that, heavier folks (over 230 pounds) would consider the same mattress Medium (around 6 or 5 on the firmness scale).

This happens because of the pressure different body types can apply to a mattress surface. Heavier users cause more compression of the mattress materials and experience more sinkage, which makes their bed feel softer. This often causes larger sleepers to search for the best extra-firm mattresses that offer more support and less sagging.

Just like that, petite sleepers don’t sink that much and don’t experience much cushioning. Therefore, some mattresses may seem firmer to them, especially the ones using bouncier materials (such as latex, coils, or high-density polyfoam).

Soft vs Firm: Sleeping Position

When picking between a firm and a soft mattress, you should also consider your favorite sleeping position. Why? Because the way you lay in bed determines the firmness (or softness) level you require for different body parts to achieve a healthy sleeping posture.

So, to help you understand what you need, let’s look at the common sleeping positions and their peculiarities:

  • Side sleeping. When lying on one side, your hips and shoulder dig into the surface of the mattress. When it’s too firm, it can cause too much pressure on the protruding parts. Therefore, side sleepers are advised to pick soft mattresses. However, keep in mind that if you are an overweight user, you may need a Medium bed instead to enjoy the proper support and effective weight distribution.
  • Back sleeping. This position requires more spinal support (especially in the lumbar area). Average back sleepers are recommended to pick Medium or Firm mattresses. Petite sleepers would feel comfortable enough on a Medium mattress, while heavier users should go with Firm. 
  • Stomach sleeping. Generally, stomach sleepers need firmer mattresses regardless of their weight. You see, in this sleeping position your spine requires adequate support, so any sinkage is now welcome as it may cause unhealthy spinal curves. 
  • Combination sleepers. If you switch between positions during sleep, this makes you a combination sleeper. Typically, such users enjoy Medium mattresses the most as those provide a balance between cushioning and support and allow for effortless shifting in bed.

Soft vs Firm Mattresses for Back Pain

Back pain is a common issue we often tend to forget about. Feels like we are used to living with back pain, and allowing it to remain in the background while dealing with our everyday lives.

Why is it so spread?

Well, one of the most common reasons behind back pain is the unhealthy sleeping posture caused by an unsuitable mattress. Simply said, your back hurts when you sleep wrong.

So, when it comes to back pain, which option is better: soft or firm?

Here’s the deal: while many people note that they experience more pain relief when sleeping on softer mattresses, it all comes down to proper support. When dealing with back pain, you need your spine to remain neutral during the night. This will help reduce tension from the vertebrae, support the natural curves of your back, and keep it relaxed. 

An overly soft mattress would prevent that by allowing too much sinkage in the hip area. And an overly firm bed won’t be suited either. It would distort the natural position of your spine.

In this video, Dr. Travis Stork explains that a proper mattress is supposed to support your body weight while allowing for just enough give to keep the natural alignment of the spine:

So, concerning the plush vs firm mattress debate, Dr. Stork is leaning towards firmer beds rather than soft mattresses.

Here’s the kicker: your bed doesn’t have to be brick-firm. In fact, it is recommended to find a good balance between firmness and cradling, which a quality medium-firm mattress could offer (1).  

And to help you understand how different mattress surfaces affect your body (especially shoulders, hips, and lower back), check out this video by Upright Health where Matt explains how to find a proper firmness level for you:

Soft vs. Firm Mattresses for Arthritis 

Now, many shoppers believe that a plush mattress would be ideal for arthritis and tender joints. After all, it would gently hug the painful pressure points instead of crashing into them and causing pressure accumulation.

But here’s the deal:

Even for those with arthritis or painful pressure points, an overly soft mattress can be more of an enemy than a friend. The thing is, a plush mattress won’t be likely to support one’s back properly. Instead, it would allow the heavier body parts to sink in. And this usually leads to a strain on one’s spine and thus, pain.

That’s why arthritis patients don’t necessarily have to go with the plushiest mattress available. Instead, they should pick a model based on their sleeping style. And if it’s a firm mattress, perhaps it would come in handy to choose something that has some padding on top to cushion the painful pressure points (like a firmer pillow-top model, for example).

How to Choose Between Soft and Firm When Sharing the Bed with a Partner

For many couples, choosing a mattress can be a nerve-wracking task. 


Because often, two sleepers can have completely different comfort preferences (and sleeping styles).

For instance, there can be a side and a stomach sleeper, which means they need a softer and firmer sleeping surface. Finding a compromise can be difficult in a situation like this, and that’s when a split mattress can save the day.

As the name suggests, a split mattress is divided into two smaller ones. This can give partnered sleepers a couple of options:

  1. Buying a mattress that could be the “middle ground” for their sleeping styles and adding a topper for each side. For example, let’s take a stomach and a side sleeper. They can buy a split medium or medium-firm mattress. Then, the side sleeper can add a thick plush topper to their side of the bed. This would allow them to get the needed cradling for the shoulders and hips when lying on one side. And the stomach sleeper can get a dense, firm mattress topper to make their side feel stiffer. In this case, they will be likely to receive the needed support (and combat sinkage) when lying on the stomach.
  2. Buying a split mattress that combines two comfort options. Some manufacturers allow shoppers to choose the comfort level of each side of the split mattress. In this scenario, each sleeper can pick exactly what they need, and no one has to settle. However, it’s worth mentioning that in this case, the number of options would be more limited.

Plush vs Firm Mattresses: How to Choose What Works for You

Let me be honest with you: It doesn’t really matter which one is better, a firm or a soft mattress.  What’s more important is whether the mattress works for you or not. And to find the perfect match, you need to consider the following factors:

  • Your weight and sleeping position. As I’ve mentioned before, different types of sleepers require different beds. So, think about the sleeping position that is the most common for you and consider your weight category before settling on mattress firmness.
  • Mattress type. Different mattress materials have their peculiarities, advantages, and drawbacks. For instance, latex is very resilient while memory foam offers a generous hug. Innerspring mattresses are bouncy and hybrid beds combine both uniform support and cushioning. Whichever type you choose, spend at least 15 minutes lying on it when shopping at the stores (2) or, if buying online, pick models that include an in-home sleep trial.
  • Your budget. You don’t have to invest thousands of dollars in a new mattress to sleep comfortably. However, cheap beds don’t always provide decent support (and tend to be less durable). There are plenty of high-quality models available from $500 to $1,000. Additionally, many mattress brands offer financing, in case your budget is a bit limited.
  • Warranty and sleep trial. A sleep trial would allow you to adjust to your new bed and test how it works for you in the longer run. As for the warranty, it may determine the quality of the mattress, as longer coverages usually mean that the manufacturer used higher-quality materials.

Soft vs Firm: Which One Is Better After All? A Final Overview

If you are still hesitating, let’s take a look at both advantages and disadvantages of each type. Hopefully, it will help you get a general picture of which option would be better for you:

Plushmore suited for side sleepers;
good at reducing pressure points;
offer enough cushioning for petite individuals.
may allow for too much sinkage and, consequently, cause an improper spinal alignment;
not suited for larger folks;
typically have a shorter lifespan than firmer models.
Firmcan be perfect for back and stomach sleepers;
typically sleep cooler than softer models;
suited for heavier sleepers;
can provide decent support for better spinal alignment.
may create pressure points;
not suited for users with sensitive joints or chronic back pain;
not ideal for side sleepers or petite individuals.


Would a firm or a soft mattress be better for a side sleeper?

Generally, softer mattresses work better for side sleepers. The thing is, side sleepers need their protruding body parts to be gently hugged. This way, their shoulders and hips won’t be pressed against the surface, which can often lead to tension build-up and pain.

Which mattress would be cheaper, soft or firm?

In most cases, firmer mattresses are often cheaper than plushier ones. They don’t use thick comfort layers and thus, require less of the material.

Which mattress is better, soft or firm?

The answer would depend on the sleeper type. For example, a firm mattress would work better for stomach sleepers, heavier back sleepers, those who don’t like being enveloped by their mattress, and chronic hot sleepers. A soft mattress would be more suited for side sleepers, petite individuals, and users who enjoy more of a hug.


While other people can argue about what’s better, a plush or a firm mattress, you already know:

The best mattress is the one suited for you.

And when shopping, keep in mind the general recommendations. It’s better to avoid extremes (overly soft or overly stiff beds) and to always consider your weight and sleeping position to make the best choice possible. 

What do you think? Would you prefer a plush or a firm bed? Or maybe something in between? Let us know in the comments!


  1. Anne Asher (February 16, 2020). Firm and Soft Mattresses for Bad Backs. Retrieved from
  2. Lisa Zamosky (January 22, 2010). How to Pick Your Perfect Mattress. Retrieved from


  1. I am in process of buying a new mattress and this article was very helpful. I was eyeing an ultra plush mattress but think I’ll go with plush now that I have read this article. I am a petite person and sleep on back and side. I currently have a mattress that is incredibly too firm and assume that is because I am lighter in weight. Thanks for the information!

    1. Hi Holly,
      Thank you for sharing your experience!
      Always happy to help! You are right, the current mattress might seem too firm because you are lighter in weight and can’t compress the comfort layers enough to enjoy the needed hug. A plush mattress could do you a lot of good in case.

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