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Mattress Firmness: Understanding and Choosing a Comfort Level

Written by Tuck Staff

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.

What Is Mattress Firmness?

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.

The Mattress Firmness Scale

When evaluating firmness, our product analysts rely on a 1-10 scale. The scale breaks down as follows:

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.

'Very Soft' and 'Soft' (1-3)

Softer mattresses with ratings from 1-3 usually perform as follows:

  • Support: Softer mattresses offer good support for people who weigh less than 130 pounds – particularly side sleepers who want to improve their spinal alignment. Heavier people often find softer beds provide inadequate support and sag excessively.
  • Conforming ability: Soft mattresses conform very closely to the sleeper’s body – too closely for some. Expect a tight, body-hugging sensation.
  • Lifespan: Softer mattress materials tend to deteriorate more quickly. As a result, mattresses with exceptionally soft comfort layers typically have shorter lifespans than those with firmer layers.
  • Price: Many mattresses are ‘Extra Soft’ or ‘Soft’ because they are constructed with several comfort layers, including memory foam and latex components. These materials can drive up the price-point by a considerable margin. Softer mattresses tend to be more expensive for this reason.

'Medium Soft', 'Medium', and 'Medium Firm' (4-6)

Mattresses with firmness ratings of 4, 5, or 6 usually perform as follows:

  • Support: Mattresses with moderate firmness settings offer stable, adequate support without sacrificing surface comfort. This makes them ideal for people who weigh 130 to 230 pounds and sleep in any position.
  • Conforming ability: ‘Medium Soft’ to ‘Medium Firm’ mattresses provide a balance of cushioning and support, resulting in moderate but consistent body contouring.
  • Lifespan: In terms of longevity, these mattresses tend to outlast softer models but are not as durable as ‘Firm’ or ‘Extra Firm’ beds.
  • Price: ‘Medium Soft’ to ‘Medium Firm’ mattresses tend to have fewer cushioning layers than their softer, more expensive counterparts. Price-points for these beds are on par with industry averages.

'Firm' and 'Extra Firm' (7-10)

Firmer mattresses with firmness ratings ranging from 7 to 10 usually perform as follows:

  • Support: ‘Firm’ and ‘Extra Firm’ mattresses sink very little, if at all. This makes them suitable for people who weigh more than 230 pounds – particularly back and stomach sleepers who need a flat, even surface for good spinal alignment.
  • Conforming ability: Firmer mattresses usually have thinner comfort layers that conform to a minimal extent. While this is often ideal for heavier people, those weighing less than 230 pounds may find that the bed doesn’t conform closely enough to alleviate discomfort and align their spine.
  • Lifespan: Firmer mattresses have the longest lifespans because the materials are denser and more resistant to indentations, sagging, and other forms of wear and tear.
  • Price: Because they lack the padding materials that often increase price-points, ‘Firm’ and ‘Extra Firm’ mattresses tend to be cheaper than their softer counterparts.

What Is 'Universal Comfort'?

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.

How to Choose the Right Mattress Firmness

In this section, we’ll discuss how customers can choose a mattress firmness setting based on different personal and performance factors.

Choosing Firmness Based on Weight and Body Type

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.

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.

Choosing Firmness Based on Sleep Position

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.

Firmness for side sleepers

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).

Firmness for Back and Stomach

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)

Firmness for Back and Stomach

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.

Firmness and Sex

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.

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.

Although firmness does not necessarily indicate how responsive a mattress will be, the following characteristics have been noted about different firmness settings.

Firmness and Pillow Loft

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.

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/feathersdown alternative, and polyester – sink to a noticeable degree; others – such as memory foamlatex, and buckwheat – do not sink as much.

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.

Other Firmness Factors

In addition to body weight, sleep position, and the other variables discussed above, mattress firmness is also linked to the following factors.

  • Durability: Thicker mattresses with softer comfort layers are more susceptible to early deterioration because indentations and sagging are likely to develop, which compromises support and causes aches and pains. Firmer mattresses have longer projected lifespans as a result.
  • Temperature Neutrality: Many softer mattress layers are made of polyfoam, memory foam, latex, and other materials that absorb and trap body heat, causing them to sleep uncomfortably warm for some. Sinking deeply into a mattress can also disrupt airflow along the sleep surface. Mattresses with firmer layers that sink to a minimal extent are considered the best for temperature neutrality.
  • Odor Potential: Most mattresses emit off-gassing odor when new. However, beds with high concentrations of polyfoam and/or memory foam tend to produce the strongest, most persistent smells. Because softer mattresses usually have more foam layers than firmer ones, they tend to have a higher potential for unpleasant odor.
  • Mattress Weight: Because softer mattresses tend to be thicker, most are also heavier than average. This is especially true of hybrids and other beds with latex and/or coil layers.
  • Price: Firmer mattresses tend to have fewer layers and less padding from memory foam, latex, and other ‘luxury’ materials. As a result, they are often priced lower than softer beds.

The table below summarizes all of the performance factors listed above for different firmness levels.

Multiple Firmness Designs

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:

  • Flippable beds: A flippable mattress is designed with two comfort layers – one on each side – and a shared support core. Most flippable beds have a different firmness setting on each side; to change how the bed feels, simply rotate it to the other side. Flippable mattresses are ideal for sleepers whose firmness preferences fluctuate from night to night.
  • Dual-firmness settings: A number of mattress manufacturers offer single-sided mattresses with dual-firmness settings for couples. This means each side of the sleep surface has a different firmness level. Dual-firmness is optimal for couples/sleep partners with different firmness preferences. Please note most dual-firmness beds are only available for sizes Queen and larger.
  • Adjustable firmness: A small selection of mattresses – mostly airbeds and ‘smart’ beds – allow owners to adjust the firmness setting using manual, remote, and/or app-based controls. Typically, the mattress will offer a firmness range, such as ‘Soft’ to ‘Medium Firm.’ These mattresses can be very beneficial for sleepers with fluctuating firmness preferences, but most carry steep price-tags.

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 polyfoammemory foamlatexwool, and feathers.

Testing out a Mattress

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.

Firmness FAQs

Lastly, let’s answer some common buyer questions regarding mattress firmness:

Does firmness affect mattress support?

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.

Who is best suited to a softer mattress?

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.

Who is best suited to a medium-firmness mattress?

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.

Who is best suited to a firmer mattress?

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.

What if my firmness preferences fluctuate from night to night?

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.

What is the best option for couples with differing firmness preferences?

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.

How can I test out a mattress before buying one?

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.

Can I return a mattress that feels too soft or too firm?

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.

Do any mattresses actually offer ‘universal comfort’?

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.

For more information about firmness and other mattress qualities, please visit the following guides on Tuck Sleep.

Additional Resources

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