What does your dream bed feel like? Is it soft like a cloud, letting you sink into the cushioning surface? Or do you prefer more resistance and want to float on top of your mattress rather than fall into it? That's the difference between a plush and firm mattress.
There's no right or wrong mattress firmness level—soft mattresses aren't better than firm mattresses, or vice versa. But people have unique sleep needs and tend to have strong preferences for mattress feel.
Which is right for you, a soft or firm mattress?
To answer that question, we'll start with a caveat. Mattress shoppers should know that firmness level is subjective, and the mattress firmness scale is a tool for comparing relative feel. Our Mattress Firmness Guide offers an in-depth look at the entire mattress firmness level scale. But this article focuses on the two ends of the spectrum: plush versus firm mattresses.
Plush vs. Firm Mattress Comparison Chart
For quick reference, we've summarized the main differences between plush and firm mattresses below. Be sure to read the full article for a deep dive into mattress firmness levels and how to choose the best fit for you.
-Compress under less weight
-Contour deeper, hug curves closer
-Healthy support for the right sleeper profile
-Comfortable cushioning and pressure point relief for the right sleeper profile
Defining Mattress Firmness
A mattress's firmness level refers to how it feels when you lie on it. Plush or soft mattresses compress under your weight, sinking in slightly and hugging your body. On the other hand, firm mattresses have more pushback. They resist compression, so you don't sink into them.
It's important to note that a mattress's feel is subjective. Depending on their weight and sleep position, two people can experience the same mattress differently. Mattresses compress further under more weight, so the same bed may feel softer to a heavier individual.
The Mattress Firmness Scale
To help shoppers compare beds, mattress brands often rate each model on the mattress firmness scale. It spans from 1 to 10, 1 being the plushest and 10 being the firmest. Because mattress feel is subjective, it's an imperfect metric. But it's still a useful tool for comparing mattress options, especially if you're choosing between two models from the same company.
Your bed can be plush, firm, or somewhere in between. According to our most recent survey, most people own a medium-firm mattress in the 5 to 7 range on the firmness scale.
What Is a Plush Mattress?
Plush or soft mattresses have more give than firm mattresses. They contour to your curves, sinking in slightly and cradling your body. They’re particularly comfortable for lighter sleepers, side sleepers who need extra cushioning around their shoulders and hips, and sleepers with joint pain.
Plush mattresses with a firmness rating below a 4 are rare, as they don’t offer enough resistance to keep your back straight. Nolah’s plushest mattresses are the Nolah Signature All-Foam Hybrid and Nolah Evolution Plush, both rated a 4-5 out of 10. They use Nolah AirFoam™, our proprietary mattress foam that sleeps cooler, lasts longer, and offers four times better pressure relief than memory foam.
Plush Mattresses Benefits:
- Cushioning and contouring
- Joint pain relief
- Great for lighter sleepers
- Great for side sleepers
What Is a Firm Mattress?
Firm mattresses provide more resistance than their plusher counterparts. They don’t compress as easily under a sleeper’s weight, so they don’t contour as closely or as deeply as soft mattress surfaces. Heavier sleepers and stomach sleepers tend to favor firmer mattresses. They need more pushback to keep their spines aligned and to prevent their shoulders and hips from sinking into the mattress.
“Firm mattresses” generally refer to beds rated a 7 or higher on the mattress firmness scale. At Nolah, our firmest option is the Nolah Evolution Firm (7-8). We also offer a latex hybrid, the Nolah Natural. It’s a 6 out 10 on the mattress firmness scale and offers deep support and exceptional pressure relief.
Firm Mattresses Benefits:
- Less sinkage, so you sleep “on” the mattress rather than “in” it
- Stabilizing and supportive
- Great for heavier sleepers
- Great for stomach sleepers
Firmness vs. Support
Firmness level and support are two different mattress qualities. Firmness level refers to how a mattress feels, while support refers to how well the mattress stabilizes your body and keeps your spine properly aligned.
Your mattress needs to be the “right” firmness level to support your body type and sleep position, but firmer mattresses aren’t innately more supportive than soft mattresses. If you sleep on a mattress that’s too soft for your weight, you’ll sink too far into it, unnaturally curving your spine. If you sleep on a mattress that’s too firm for your weight, the heavier and bulkier parts of your body won’t sink in at all, and they’ll jut out and misalign your spine.
Is It Better to Sleep on a Firm or Soft Mattress?
We get this question a lot. But in truth, there’s no short answer. Plush mattresses are better for some sleepers, while firm mattresses are better for others. How do you know what’s right for you? Below, we break down each factor you should consider when deciding between a soft and firm bed.
The laws of physics apply to mattress comfort. Sleepers who weigh more put more pressure on their mattress’s surface, causing the flexible, cushioning materials to compress and contour. If you weigh 130 pounds but want your bed to contour and hug your curves closely, you’ll need a softer mattress than someone who’s 200 pounds but wants the same feel.
Said another way, heavier sleepers need more resistance to keep their spine aligned. So, a lighter sleeper may get proper support from a soft mattress, but a heavier sleeper won’t. As a general rule of thumb, the heavier you are, the firmer the mattress you need.
Your sleep position determines how your weight is distributed when you lie on your mattress. For example, side sleeping concentrates your weight on one side, while back sleeping spreads it out across your whole body. For proper spinal alignment and pressure relief, side sleepers need softer mattresses, and stomach sleepers need firmer mattresses. Back sleepers fall right in the middle.
People with joint pain, especially around their shoulders, hips, and knees, tend to favor plusher mattresses. Meanwhile, people with back pain tend to prefer the stabilizing resistance of medium-firm or firmer mattresses.
Remember, mattress firmness measures how a bed feels. Some sleepers like a lot of cushioning and want their mattress surface to flex with their movements. On the other hand, some sleepers feel “trapped” in their mattress with even the slightest bit of sinkage. As long as your mattress properly supports your spine and doesn’t put extra stress on your joints, the ideal firmness level may come down to personal preference.
Sleeper Profiles: Soft vs. Firm Mattress
Now, let’s take a closer look at the mattress firmness level that best fists common sleeper profiles. Remember, every sleeper is unique and has unique preferences and needs. But hopefully, these general recommendations can point you in the right direction and determine which qualities you want in your next bed.
Who Should Use a Plush Mattress?
Soft mattresses work best for lightweight sleepers, side sleepers, and people with joint pain. Choose a plush mattress if you want a sleep surface that contours to your curves and cushions pressure points.
Who Should Use a Firm Mattress?
Firm mattresses work best for heavier sleepers, stomach sleepers, and some people with back pain. Choose a firm mattress if you want limited contouring and prefer a mattress surface that doesn’t give or sink.
What’s Better for Side Sleepers, Plush or Firm?
Side sleepers tend to prefer mattresses on the softer end of the spectrum. They need extra flexibility and cushioning around their lower shoulder, hip, and knee, making soft and medium mattresses good fits. Side sleepers tend to love all-foam mattresses and foam hybrids. The all-foam Nolah Original won 2022's Best Mattress for Side Sleepers award from both Slumber Yard and Mattress Clarity.
What’s Better for Back Sleepers, Plush or Firm?
Back sleepers generally prefer mattresses in the middle of the firmness level scale. Depending on your weight, around 5 to 7 out of 10 may work best. They need cushioning for their joints but less contouring than side sleepers. Back sleepers need resistance and lift for their lumbar region, but not as much as stomach sleepers.
What’s Better for Stomach Sleepers, Plush or Firm?
Stomach sleepers need firmer mattresses than any other sleep position. A firm mattress with minimal sinkage will prevent a stomach sleeper’s spine from bowing, which causes misalignment and pain. Hybrid mattresses tend to serve stomach sleepers well, thanks to the structure and support of coils.
What’s Better for Back Pain, Plush or Firm?
It depends on your sleep position and weight, but generally, people with back pain can benefit from a medium-firm mattress. A medium-firmer mattress can lift your lumbar region and keep your spine in a neutral position while dispersing pressure from high-tension areas.
Should Kids Sleep on a Plush or Firm Mattress?
As with adults, a kid’s ideal mattress firmness level depends on their weight and sleep position. Growing bodies need proper spinal alignment, so it’s important to find a supportive mattress for your child. For many kids, the sweet spot is in the middle with a medium-firm mattress.
Nolah offers a double-sided mattress, the Nolah Nurture, with both a firm and soft side. This flippable design gives your kid a choice of sleep surfaces and ensures they have a comfortable, supportive option through different stages of growth.
Tips for Finding Your Perfect Mattress Firmness
Now that you know the difference between plush and firm mattresses and the benefits of each, you’re ready to choose your fit! We’ll leave you with a few final tips for mattress shopping and finding a bed with the right amount of cushioning and support for your needs.
- Read or watch reviews from customers who share your sleep position and body type. These reviews will give you the most accurate idea of how the mattress will feel to you.
- Choose a mattress brand that offers a sleep trial with your mattress purchase. That way, you can return or exchange the mattress if it ends up being the wrong fit for you. Nolah offers free shipping and a 120-night at-home sleep trial with every mattress.
The firmness level isn’t the only important decision to make when replacing your mattress. Head to our Mattress Buying Guide for more mattress shopping considerations and tips.