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Firmness is one of the most important considerations for mattress buyers. The right firmness setting can provide a comfortable sleep experience and alleviate pressure points in the back, hips, and other sensitive areas of the sleeper’s body. The wrong firmness setting, on the other hand, can cause nightly discomfort and lead to more aches and pains. This guide will discuss the different mattress firmness settings and how these settings impact sleep quality.
When discussing mattresses, ‘firmness’ refers to how soft or firm the bed feels to individual sleepers. Firmness is directly tied to the topmost comfort layers of the mattress. These layers – often made from materials like polyfoam, memory foam, and latex – are designed to cushion the sleeper and act provide a buffer for the firmer, denser materials found in the bed’s support core. The firmness setting indicates (among other things) how closely the mattress will conform to the sleeper’s body.
Another important mattress factor, support, is often confused with firmness. Support refers to the bed’s ability to provide a flat, even surface that minimizes pressure points and keeps the spine aligned. While the comfort layers impact firmness, the bed’s bottom layers – known as the support core – play the biggest role in a bed’s supportive qualities. Additionally, conforming ability is distinct from firmness; conforming ability refers to how consistently the mattress contours to the sleeper’s body without sagging under the shoulders, midsection, and other heavy areas. Ultimately, a mattress shopper should take firmness, support, and conforming ability into account before deciding which model is best for them.
It’s important to note that firmness preferences are completely subjective. A mattress that offers ideal comfort and support for one sleeper may feel uncomfortable and uneven to another. This is because certain factors – such as the sleeper’s weight, body type, and preferred sleep position – often indicate which firmness setting is best. Mattress firmness is also loosely tied to other performance variables, such as the bed’s durability, temperature neutrality, and odor potential.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the different firmness settings for mattresses made today.
When evaluating firmness, Tuck Sleep’s product analysts rely on a 1-10 scale. The scale breaks down as follows:
|Scale Rating||Firmness Level||Characteristics|
|1||‘Extra Soft’||The sleep surface will sink very deeply and conform closely|
|2-3||‘Soft’||The sleep surface sinks and conforms to a significant extent|
|4||‘Medium Soft’||The surface sinks somewhat and conforms fairly closely|
|5||‘Medium’||The surface does not sink much and will conform to a noticeable extent|
|6||‘Medium Firm’||The surface sinks very little and conforms to a moderate extent|
|7-8||‘Firm’||The surface remains even with little to no sinking; conforming is minimal|
|9-10||‘Extra Firm’||No sinkage and little to no conforming|
Although we have tested mattresses that fit each setting category, the vast majority of beds sold today fall between a 3 and an 8 on the 1-10 scale. Now, let’s take a closer look at each setting’s specific characteristics.
Softer mattresses with ratings from 1-3 usually perform as follows:
Mattresses with firmness ratings of 4, 5, or 6 usually perform as follows:
Firmer mattresses with firmness ratings ranging from 7 to 10 usually perform as follows:
Some mattress brands advertise ‘universal comfort,’ suggesting that their beds will be equally comfortable and supportive for all sleepers. These assurances are questionable at best, since individual factors like body type and preferred sleep position play a major role in a person’s firmness preferences.
Based on our product research and evaluations, we’ve found that mattresses with certain firmness settings receive more favorable owner reviews than others. Specifically, mattresses that are considered ‘Medium’ (5), ‘Medium Firm’ (6), and ‘Firm’ (7) have generated the most positive ratings. However, owner satisfaction is not exclusively tied to firmness and these reviews may take additional factors into account.
Bottom line: always take claims of ‘universal comfort’ with a grain of salt.
In this section, we’ll discuss how customers can choose a mattress firmness setting based on different personal and performance factors.
Generally speaking, sleepers fall into one of three categories based on body weight. The table below breaks down the optimal settings for most sleepers in the light weight, average weight, and heavy weight groups.
|Weight Group||Weight Range||Typical Needs and Preferences||Ideal Firmness Settings for Most|
|Light||Less than 130 lbs.||This weight group tends to prefer softer mattresses that conform very closely||‘Soft’ (2-3)
‘Medium Soft (4)
|Average||130 to 230 lbs.||This weight group often prefers beds that offer a balance of soft padding and firm support||‘Medium Soft’ (4)
‘Medium Firm’ (6)
|Heavy||More than 230 lbs.||This weight group usually prefers firmer beds with strong support and minimal conforming||‘Medium Firm’ (6)
‘Firm’ (7-8)’Extra Firm’ (9)
Mattress thickness is another variable associated with sleeper weight. Lighter people usually feel most comfortable on thinner mattresses because they are easier for getting in and out of bed. Heavier people, on the other hand, often find that thicker mattresses offer better support.
In addition to weight, body type is an important factor when deciding which firmness setting is best. For example, people with exceptionally broad shoulders and/or hips often prefer mattresses with ‘Medium’ to ‘Medium Firm’ settings. Alternatively, people with larger waists typically prefer ‘Medium Firm’ or firmer settings.
At Tuck Sleep, we categorize sleepers by four different positions: side, back, stomach, or a combination of two or more. Each of these positions has different characteristics and comfort needs.
Side sleeping is the most common sleep position, and is also considered the healthiest. Side sleepers usually need a mattress with a soft surface that conforms to the shoulders and hips. This ensures proper spinal alignment; excessively firm mattresses cause the spine to become uneven, and can lead to added aches and pains. Depending on their weight, most side sleepers find that a firmness setting ranging from ‘Soft’ (2) to ‘Firm’ (7) is best.
Back sleeping is the second most common sleep position. The spine is naturally aligned, so most back sleepers prefer mattresses that maintain an even, sag-free surface. This prevents heavier areas of their body from sinking further than lighter areas. However, excessive firmness can also be problematic because it causes the body to arch upward. For these reasons, the optimal firmness setting for back sleepers usually falls between ‘Soft’ (3) and ‘Firm’ (8).
Stomach sleeping is the least common sleep position; many experts advise against it because stomach sleepers often develop pains in their neck and shoulders due to the position of the head. Like back sleeping, stomach sleeping offers natural spinal alignment. However, because many heavier individuals carry significant weight in their midsection, softer mattresses tend to sink deeply beneath their bodies, resulting in uneven support. This is less of an issue for lighter individuals. As a result, the ideal firmness for most stomach sleepers falls between ‘Soft’ (3) and ‘Firm’ (8)
Combination sleeping involves a mix of side, back, and/or stomach sleeping, often each night. Combination sleepers often have a hard time selecting the right firmness because their preferences vary by position. For this reason, we recommend moderate firmness settings for combination sleepers; ‘Medium Soft’ (4) to ‘Medium Firm’ (6) will be suitable for most.
The following table summarizes our findings about firmness preferences in relation to sleeper weight and position.
|Sleep Position||Sleepers in the Light Weight Group (Less Than 130 lbs.)||Sleepers in the Average Weight Group (130 to 230 lbs.)||Sleepers in the Heavy Weight Group (More Than 230 lbs.)|
|Side||‘Soft’ (2) to ‘Medium Soft’ (4)||‘Soft’ (3) to ‘Medium Firm’ (6)||‘Medium’ (5) to ‘Firm’ (7)|
|Back||‘Soft’ (3) to ‘Medium’ (5)||‘Medium’ (5) to ‘Firm’ (7)||‘Medium Firm’ (6) to ‘Firm’ (8)|
|Stomach||‘Soft’ (3) to ‘Medium’ (5)||‘Medium’ (5) to ‘Firm’ (7)||‘Medium Firm’ (6) to ‘Firm’ (8)|
|Combination||‘Soft’ (3) to ‘Medium Soft’ (4)||‘Medium Soft’ (4) to ‘Medium Firm’ (6)||‘Medium’ (5) to ‘Firm’ (7)|
When shopping for a new mattress, couples should take ‘responsiveness’ into account. Responsiveness refers to how much or little the bed ‘responds’ to a sleeper’s body. Highly responsive mattresses are quite bouncy, and considered best for sex; less responsive mattresses tend to sink too much, which can create a sensation some couples liken to fighting with the mattress.
Although firmness does not necessarily indicate how responsive a mattress will be, the following characteristics have been noted about different firmness settings.
|Firmness Range||Characteristics||Good for Sex Rating|
|‘Extra Soft’ to ‘Soft’ (1-3)||Softer mattresses tend to be the least responsive. Couples are likely to sink during sex.||Poor to Fair|
|‘Medium Soft’ to ‘Medium Firm’ (4-6)||Mattresses with moderate firmness settings offer good responsiveness without compromising comfort or support||Good to Very Good|
|‘Firm’ to ‘Extra Firm’ (7-10)||Firmer mattresses are usually very responsive – sometimes too responsive. Firm surfaces may cause discomfort for couples during sex, depending on their position||Fair to Good|
In addition to firmness, couples should look at other factors when choosing a mattress for sex. For example, material construction is key; beds with thick comfort layers and foam bases do not offer the same responsiveness as mattresses with thinner comfort layers and coil-based support cores. Noise potential is also important, since silent mattresses are better for discreet sex than noisy ones.
Optimal mattress firmness is often tied to pillow loft, or thickness. Pillows fall into one of three general categories: low-loft (less than 3″), medium-loft (3″ to 5″), and high-loft (more than 5″).
Generally, high-loft pillows are more suitable for firmer beds because the sleeper does not sink as deeply; the pillow provides comfortable padding without compromising support and spinal alignment. Alternatively, lower-loft pillows are better for softer beds because sleepers sink so deeply; when used with softer beds, high-loft pillows can elevate the sleeper’s neck too much and cause added discomfort.
The right combination of firmness and loft can provide an even sleep surface and minimize aches and pains in the sleeper’s neck, shoulders, and other areas. The wrong combination can exacerbate discomfort issues. The next table looks at ideal pillow loft settings for different mattress firmness levels.
|Firmness Range||Low-loft Pillow (Less Than 3″)||Medium-loft Pillow (3″ to 5″)||High-loft Pillow (More than 5″)|
|‘Extra Soft’ to ‘Soft’ (1-3)||Good to Very Good||Fair to Good||Poor|
|‘Medium Soft’ to ‘Medium Firm’ (4-6)||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Fair to Good|
|‘Firm’ to ‘Extra Firm’ (7-10)||Poor||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good|
One thing to note: a pillow’s material composition may determine how much it sinks beneath the sleeper’s head and neck, which in turn affects the loft. Some pillow materials – such as down/feathers, down alternative, and polyester – sink to a noticeable degree; others – such as memory foam, latex, and buckwheat – do not sink as much.
In addition to body weight, sleep position, and the other variables discussed above, mattress firmness is also linked to the following factors.
The table below summarizes all of the performance factors listed above for different firmness levels.
|Criteria||‘Extra Soft’ (1)||‘Soft’ (2-3)||‘Medium Soft’ (4)||‘Medium’ (5)||‘Medium Firm’ (6)||‘Firm’ (7-8)||‘Extra Firm’ (9-10)|
|Conforming||Very close||Close||Somewhat close||Somewhat moderate||Moderate||Minimal||Very minimal|
|Side Sleepers||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Very Good||Very Good||Good||Fair to Good||Fair to Poor|
|Back Sleepers||Poor to Fair||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Good||Fair to Good|
|Stomach Sleepers||Poor to Fair||Fair||Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Fair to Good|
|Lightweight Sleepers||Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Good||Fair to Good||Fair||Poor to Fair|
|Average Weight Sleepers||Fair||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Good||Fair|
|Heavyweight Sleepers||Poor||Poor to Fair||Fair||Good||Good to Very Good||Very Good||Good to Very Good|
|Sex||Poor||Poor to Fair||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Fair||Poor|
|Ideal Pillow Loft||Low (less than 3″)||Low (less than 3″)||Medium (3″ to 5″)||Medium (3″ to 5″)||Medium (3″ to 5″)||High (more than 5″)||High (more than 5″)|
|Durability||Poor||Fair||Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Very Good||Very Good|
|Temperature Neutrality||Poor||Poor to Fair||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Very Good||Very Good|
|Odor Potential||Poor||Poor to Fair||Good||Good to Very Good||Good to Very Good||Very Good||Very Good|
|Ease of Lifting/Rotating||Poor||Poor to Fair||Fair to Good||Good||Good to Very Good||Very Good||Very Good|
|Availability||Rare||Somewhat common||Very Common||Very Common||Very Common||Very Common||Rare|
So far, we’ve focused on mattresses with one fixed firmness setting. However, today’s shoppers can also choose from beds with multiple firmness options. These include:
Lastly, mattress toppers can be useful for sleepers who are dissatisfied with their bed’s firmness settings. A topper is an individual layer of cushioning – usually 2″ to 4″ thick – that is placed on top of the mattress to make the surface feel softer or firmer. Toppers are relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of buying a new bed. A wide range of materials are used to make toppers, including convoluted polyfoam, memory foam, latex, wool, and feathers.
Though many mattress buyers purchase their bed at brick-and-mortar stores, online ‘bed-in-a-box’ brands have become hugely popular in recent years. Because most online brands do not operate any physical locations, they face lower overhead costs and can sell mattresses at much lower price-points than their brick-and-mortar competitors. However, this means customers probably will not be able to test out the mattress before buying one.
This is where sleep trials come in handy. Most brands allow customers to essentially test out the mattress for a certain length of time; though trial periods vary by brand, most fall between 90 and 120 nights. If the customer is dissatisfied before the trial expires, then he/she may return the mattress for a full refund. Some trials also allow exchanges, and in most cases the manufacturer will arrange for the bed to be picked up at no extra charge to the customer.
We urge mattress shoppers to take advantage of sleep trials in order to determine if a bed has the right firmness – but be sure to read the fine print because some brands level steep return fees.
Brick-and-mortar shoppers have an easier time testing out mattresses for firmness because most stores have a wide selection of floor models. However, prices tend to be higher at these locations due to the substantial overhead expenses. Many customers find that visiting a brick-and-mortar store to test out mattress firmness is beneficial, whether they plan to buy a bed at the store or through an online seller.
One thing to note: most mattress warranties explicitly state that changes to the owner’s firmness preferences are not considered mattress defects. As a result, the warranty prohibits mattress repairs or replacements based on this issue. Customers who become dissatisfied with their bed’s firmness after the sleep trial has expired usually cannot receive a refund or replacement mattress under their warranty.
Lastly, let’s answer some common buyer questions regarding mattress firmness:
Firmness describes how the mattress feels, while support refers to the bed’s ability (or lack thereof) to provide an even sleep surface. Firmness does not necessarily affect firmness, but certain sleepers will experience more or less support based on how firm or soft the mattress feels.
For example, someone who sleeps on their back and weighs more than 230 pounds may find that a ‘Soft’ (2-3) mattress provides uneven support because it sags excessively beneath their body. A side sleeper weighing less than 130 pounds may find that the same bed offers optimal support levels.
Generally speaking, side sleepers who weigh less than 130 pounds are best suited for ‘Extra Soft’ or ‘Soft’ mattresses. People who weigh more than 130 pounds may experience excessive sagging, while soft surfaces also cause alignment issues for many back and stomach sleepers.
Mattresses ranging from ‘Medium Soft’ (4) to ‘Medium Firm’ (6) are often the best option for sleepers weighing between 130 and 230 pounds. Side sleepers in this weight group gravitate toward softer settings, while back and stomach sleepers in the same group often prefer firmer beds.
Typically, people who weigh more than 230 pounds are best suited for firmer beds. Softer mattresses sag too much, which compromises the bed’s structural support and often causes aches and pains to develop. Side sleepers may find that firmer beds do not align their spines enough, but back and stomach sleepers usually prefer firmer surfaces.
If your ideal firmness varies, then you might be a good candidate for a flippable mattress with different firmness settings on each side. Those with bigger budgets may also opt for an adjustable airbed or smart bed. Lastly, mattress toppers can adjust the firmness of a mattress to a noticeable extent; using one periodically might be a cost-effective way for sleepers to change the firmness of their mattress.
Many couples prefer different firmness settings. A dual-firmness bed can be useful for these sleepers because it features a different setting on each side of the bed.
If ordering a mattress from an online brand with no brick-and-mortar locations, see if a sleep trial is available – and also read the fine print to avoid extra fees down the road. Most sleep trials allow customers to test out the bed for at least 90 nights, which is more than enough time for the bed to adapt to the sleeper’s body.
Testing out mattresses is much easier for brick-and-mortar shoppers: simply visit the nearest store and ask to test out beds with different settings.
Most brands allow customers to return their mattress for any reason during the sleep trial. However, once the sleep trial ends, most warranties state that changes to the owner’s firmness preferences are not considered defects, and do not qualify for mattress repairs or replacements.
Short answer: no. Firmness preferences are entirely subjective and based on a wide range of factors. A bed with ideal firmness settings for one sleeper may feel uneven and uncomfortable to another. By using the criteria we’ve described above and testing out a wide range of firmness options, shoppers can determine which mattress setting is best for them.