The Mattress Firmness Guide for The Rest of Us


mattress firmness dilemma for a consumerIn today’s world, it can be somewhat of a challenge when purchasing a new mattress to find and choose the ideal mattress for you. People have personal needs and preferences that contribute greatly to the overall decision-making process when purchasing a mattress.

However, before attempting to accomplish this task, it is useful and certainly necessary to have some comprehension of what mattress firmness really is.

Mattress firmness can have a variety of meanings. Firm, as defined in the dictionary is ‘not soft or yielding when pressed; comparatively solid, hard, stiff or rigid.’ But such is not the case when it comes to the wide range of mattresses available today and to clearly defining the term ‘mattress firmness’.

To one consumer, firm can mean hard and stiff, just as the dictionary defines. However, to another consumer it can mean ‘medium firm’ or even ‘plush firm.’ What exactly does that mean? Simply put, ‘firmness’ levels in mattresses are varied.

Some call it soft, plush, ultra-plush, or pillow top, where others call it medium firm, ultra-firm, firm, or even extra firm. In order to determine which firmness level satisfies your individual needs, we will first start out by setting forth here in this guide, a simple explanation of what mattress firmness really means.

Mattress Firmness Defined

First and foremost, the firmness of a mattress should not be confused with the support of a mattress. Support refers specifically to how the mattress keeps your body horizontally aligned when sleeping.

Mattresses ranging from very firm to very soft pillow tops, though extremely different in firmness and feel, all have the capability and the material features to offer adequate support for appropriate body alignment and a comfortable satisfying night’s sleep. Mattress firmness is reflected in the initial feel of a mattress.

With that said, though one consumer may prefer a firm mattress and yet another a plush soft pillow top mattress, both consumers will be afforded the support required in their mattress for a quality night’s sleep regardless of the firmness level of choice.

Mattress firmness levels typically come in three types – soft, medium and firm. There are many key factors that come into play, however, when the consumer sets out to purchase the ideal soft, medium, or firm mattress.

pile of mattresses, with different mattress firmnessTo begin with body type and weight plays a significant role in the decision-making process as does age, medical conditions and any other specific comfort requirements one may have.

When testing a mattress, the tendency once you lie down on the mattress is to notice either a solid, compacted feel (firm), a plush, almost cottony hug like feel (soft), or a midpoint balance feel between the two offering both contouring softness and a push back hardness (medium).

Depending upon personal feel and perception, defining the mattress firmness is both personal and unique to every individual.

There is truly no such thing as one mattress being only firm, another brand of mattress being only medium, and yet another style of mattress being only soft.

Quite frankly, there is no such thing as a definitive soft, medium or firm mattress since the characteristics and feel of any mattress is specific only to the individual testing the mattress and comparing its features and comfort levels.

The manufacture of specific mattresses can contribute to a ‘more firm’, a ‘more medium’, or a ‘more soft’ mattress as is intended by the development and manufacturing process.

However, over all, we emphasize that firmness level is defined as the ‘initial feel and initial perceived comfort level’ of a mattress as determined by those testing the mattress and not by a specific labeling or rating of the mattress.

It is important for you to always test a mattress rather than depend upon its label or suggested firmness and comfort levels to be certain that it is, in fact, comfortable to and for you.

Mattress Firmness Levels

Body weight plays a significant role in choosing the perfect mattress firmness. Those sleepers that are light in weight tend to experience more of the top layers than they do the core foam or other materials since there is a minimized level of pressure being placed on the mattress itself.

Sleepers with a heavy body weight place more pressure on the mattress which means there is a need for a more serious compression support than that of lighter weight sleepers. With the increased weight there is a high risk of experiencing more sinkage.

Because of the increased weight there is an increased need for greater support, more push back and a firmness that has the capability of handling your weight while affording you a quality comfortable night’s sleep.

Firm and Ultra Firm Mattresses

Firm and ultra firm mattresses typically consist of a firm coil system with multiple layers of compressed, firm upholstery. These mattresses offer the least amount of surface give.

A mattress especially designed for the back sleeper, the firm and ultra firm mattresses offer very minimal sinkage, usually 1” or less and are designed specifically to keep sleepers comfortably afloat on the surface of the mattress thus affording a comfortable night’s sleep.

Firm Mattresses

A firm mattress will typically have a thin upholstery layer of a soft foam which contributes to the soft top of the mattress and additional upholstery that consists of a firmer foam which presents with a more solid and firm feel to the mattress.

Normally a good choice for back sleepers or stomach sleepers, those who sleep on their sides should avoid mattresses that fall into the firm level.

Plush Firm and Luxury Firm Mattresses

Whether you call it plush or luxury these mattresses are neither firm nor soft. These mattresses are highly favored by couples since, with their varying comfort preferences, need a mattress that will accommodate and satisfy the sleeping needs of both.

With upholstery that is just soft enough to provide sleepers with a truly all-round comfortable sleeping surface, the plush and luxury firm mattress tends to satisfy the varied sleep needs of all sleepers, back, side and stomach, without causing any numbness, lack of circulation, or any other types of comfort issues.

These mattresses truly are neither too hard nor too soft and present with a true medium firmness. Studies have revealed that the luxury firm mattress has been rated in the ultra premium mattress category as the #1 comfort choice by consumers.

Medium Firm Mattresses

Often referred to as a universal comfort mattress, the medium firm mattress is made to satisfy the individual requirements of the majority of sleepers.

These mattresses are highly favored and quite popular since the preference of more than 80% of sleepers is that of a medium feel mattress.  The medium firmness mattress offers the best balance of push-back, contour and hug.

Whether you are a back sleeper, side sleeper, or a stomach sleeper, chances are there is a medium feel mattress out there that will provide you with all the comfort, support, contouring, hugging, and durability you need.

The foam layers in the medium firm mattresses are designed to handle body types of all sizes and weights while still delivering the firmness, comfort and support you want and need.

Plush Mattresses

Unlike the plush and luxury mattresses, these mattresses are very soft mattresses that are made up of thick upholstery layers that provide sleepers with a much softer initial mattress feel, support and needed durability.

Especially suited for side sleepers, the plush mattress is not a recommended option for back and stomach sleepers who need be concerned about proper spinal alignment.

Ultra Plush, Pillow Top, Plush Pillow Top and Euro Top Mattresses

Whatever you choose to call them, these mattresses vary greatly in firmness. They all fall into the category of the softest mattresses available on the market since they are comprised of very thick upholstery layers of extremely soft foams and materials and come in a wide range of styles and brands.

The firmness, however, of the foam inside each of these mattresses varies greatly. The most important factor to take into consideration with this category of mattresses is to know exactly what is on the inside.

In researching these mattresses be certain they are not manufactured with filler foams that many companies use in order to create a false loft for increased thickness.

Choosing those that are manufactured with quality materials and not cheaper filler materials will provide sleepers with all the comfort they are looking for and durability as well.

Like the plush mattresses above, this category is usually preferred by side sleepers, while back and stomach sleepers usually need some more horizontal consistency.

Which Mattress is Best for My Sleeping Position?

Every individual has a specific firmness level and a mattress that best suits their favored sleeping position and their personal sleeping needs.

Regardless of what your individual needs may be, or whether you prefer to sleep on your back, your stomach, or your side, rest assured there is a mattress out there that will not only afford you all the comfort and support you are looking for but will be every bit durable and reliable and offer you a consistent quality night of sleep, every night.

For the Side Sleeper

Side sleeping is the most common sleeping style as has been revealed by many studies. Those who enjoy this comfortable sleeping position are in need of a mattress that alleviates any stress and pressure on their shoulders and hips.

side sleeping on a soft mattressWhen sleeping on your side, if you do not have an appropriate firmness to your mattress, more times than not, you will suffer from numbing limbs and even interrupted circulation.

With that said, a mattress that has a slight soft firmness is an ideal choice for side sleepers because it allows for only minimal sinkage and it accommodates the natural curve of the body while keeping the spine aligned.

For the Back Sleeper

Many people who sleep on their back primarily are in need of support for their lower back, which is so important to so many people.

woman sleeping on her backIf you are one of the many people who has lower back concerns, then you want to avoid a very firm or stiff mattress since this firmness level has the least amount of give causing it to push against your spine and does not allow for the appropriate amount of support needed by the concerned back sleeper.

In addition, you want to avoid a mattress that is far too soft since this firmness level will not provide you with enough support for your back and body overall and will result in sinkage that can only contribute to discomfort and a sleepless night.

It is therefore recommended that back sleepers choose a medium-firm mattress for their personal needs since the medium firmness will contribute to a balanced support, comfort, and spine alignment and can deliver a consistent quality sleep every night.

For the Stomach Sleeper

Individuals who prefer to sleep on their stomach most assuredly need a mattress that is a bit firmer and stiffer in order to keep your body afloat on the mattress and not experience sinkage issues, let alone your spine bending backwards.

woman sleeping on her stomachA mattress that is too soft or even of a medium firmness does not provide appropriate spine alignment, which is a critical issue for the typical stomach sleeper.

Both soft and medium mattresses can present sleepers with numbness issues and circulation issues throughout the night, making a firm mattress a more practical mattress of choice.

An innerspring mattress, with a stiffer firmness level is apt to be more beneficial to the stomach sleeper, but like all else, is a matter of personal preference and needs.

For the Combination Sleeper

What is a combination sleeper? Simply put, it is an individual who sleeps in a variety or combination of sleeping positions throughout the night. Most people fall into this sleeping category where there is a great deal of movement while sleeping.

Individuals typically start out sleeping in one position, but then change their position several times during the night based upon their own comfort levels. If that is the case for you, it is important to choose a mattress that is best suited to your own individual needs and comfort requirements.

Typically, that’s a mattress that is not too rigid for your side sleeping positions and definitely not too soft for your stomach sleeping positions.

More often than not combination sleepers choose a mattress with a medium firmness to accommodate their multiple positions and their many sleep needs.

Innerspring pocket coil mattresses and latex mattresses tend to provide a high level of comfort for the average combination sleeper, but recent advancements in the memory foam industry brought on the market many new brands offering good quality medium-firm mattress.

With the individual needs varying from person to person and the inconsistency of sleeping in one position, should you find yourself to be a combination sleeper then a medium firmness mattress should be your main focus.


Again, we say that consumers should not confuse mattress firmness with support. Mattress firmness specifically refers to ‘the initial feel’ of a mattress.

Though there are abundant brands and styles of mattresses on the market today, it is important to understand what firmness is and the important role it plays in the consumer’s quest to purchase the ideal mattress specific to their own individual wants and needs.

With that said, it is critically important that you test out your mattress before buying it and do not rely upon recommendations of salespersons or the labeling on the mattress.

There is nothing quite as reassuring as experience itself, and when lying down on a mattress you can truly experience, to some level, the overall firmness, comfort and contouring a mattress will provide.

In order to help you choose, we compiled our Best Memory Foam Mattress guide and our Best Innerspring Mattress guide, where you can find the results of our market search for the perfect mattress.