Firm Mattress Myth or Truth?

We’ve all probably heard many people, especially our parents, insist that a firm mattress is a must in order to maintain a healthy back. Almost two years ago I began suffering from a herniated disc in my lumbar spine, and my experience with that condition led me to question if the firm mattress belief is actually just a myth.

I’m 29-years-old, male, about 5’8" or maybe a tad bit taller, currently weigh 180lbs (weighed 200 when the problem started),and am in decent shape. Before my back problem, I never paid much attention to how I felt about my mattress. I’d been sleeping on the same very firm mattress for 20 years. After the back problem started, when I laid in bed on my back I would feel a high amount of pressure in my lower back. It felt like pressure was concentrated in my lower back due to the large curve that exists between my glutes and back. In addition to that pressure, I began realizing my mattress was sort of “pushing” against my entire body, especially my lower back and my shoulders, and it was doing so pretty hard.

About 3 months ago, I invested in a memory foam mattress. I chose the Regalis from Select Foam. The Regalis is listed as “medium-firm” and is the equivalent of TempurPedic’s Rhapsody model. At first I really liked the feel (I went from my 20-year-old very firm mattress to a high quality memory foam), but after about a week, I began to realize that I needed a softer mattress, one that would more fully contour to my body thus more evenly distribute pressure and relieve pressure points. Select Foam has good quality and customer service, so I decided to stick with them and exchange the Regalis for the Cirrus Luxe. The Cirrus Luxe is listed as their “softest gel bed” and is the equivalent of TempurPedic’s Cloud Luxe model. The Cirrus Luxe arrived at my house this past Friday, so I’ve slept on it for 4 nights so far. It is very soft, it contours very well to my body (it totally fills the glute-back curvature gap), and it does a good job of distributing pressure and relieving my pressure points especially the ones in my lower back and shoulders. I think the Cirrus Luxe’s combo of 2.5 inches of 4lb memory foam on top of 2 inches of 8lb memory foam allow me to sink deep enough into it to get very good contour while also providing support to my spine. I am very happy and comfortable with the Cirrus Luxe, which happens to be the softest mattress I’ve ever slept on.

So, based on my experience it seems that the firm mattress belief is just a myth. In my opinion, you should just sleep on the mattress that feels most comfortable to you.

Am I wrong? Am I going to wake up one night 6 months from now in pain because my mattress is too soft?

Any other opinions?

Anyone know what the firm mattress belief is based on?

I’m in my 30’s and was under the same impression. I always looked for “firm” models. I think that in the memory foam world this is not necessary true. I’m still learning and actually just bought my first memory foam bed. I’m going to try it for a year and see if I want it to be slightly more firm or no.

You can read my experience here.

Hi pcunite and VAsleeper,

The short answer is that this is a myth.

You can see a study here that is frequently referred to and suggests that a medium firm mattress is the 'best" choice but even this really has little meaning because they don’t differentiate between the firmness of the comfort layers and the firmness of the support layers which each have different functions in a mattress or specify the combinations of comfort and support layers that may be most suitable for different body types and sleeping styles. The study was also only based on two mattresses and because there isn’t an industry standard for mattress firmness it really has little meaning except to say that “firmer isn’t always better”.

The real goal of a mattress is to keep the spine and joints in good alignment and re-distribute pressure away from the bony prominences and pressure points. Since each person has a different body type and sleeping style, the balance between the firmness of the support layers which provides the primary support of the mattress and “stops” the pelvis from sinking down too far (which in turn controls pelvic tilt and the curve of the lumbar spine) and the thickness and softness/firmness of the upper comfort layers which “allows” the bony prominences to sink in enough and fills in the gaps in the sleeping profile (which provides the lighter or secondary support needed under the recessed parts of the body) is unique and can be different for each person.

A mattress that is too firm to allow the body to sink in evenly with good alignment and fill in the gaps in the body profile or a mattress that is too soft and allows the heavier pelvis to sink down too far can both lead to poor spinal alignment (see this diagram)

The other side of the coin though is that testing a mattress for comfort is very unlikely to produce good results. Comfort is very subjective and this study also indicates that the odds of success and choosing the most suitable mattress for those who choose a mattress based on “comfort” are less than random chance alone.

Of all the factors in a choice of mattress … good alignment is the most important (because it requires the body prominences such as the shoulders to sink in enough which also tends to relieve pressure and the hips to be “stopped” before they sink in too far) but is also the most difficult to test for.

The “bridge” between the two (choosing the firmest possible mattress which tends to lead to choices which are too firm and testing for “comfort” which tends to lead to choices which are too soft) is testing objectively, carefully, and specifically for alignment and pressure relief rather than just “firmness” or “comfort” (which is mostly connected to pressure relief and not alignment).

The firmness and elasticity of the support layers along with the softness, thickness, and elasticity of the comfort layers and how they interact with each different body type and sleeping style are the key to success in a mattress choice and it would be nice if each mattresses had two ratings (one for the support layers and one for the comfort layers) rather than just one “overall” rating which would be a much more accurate way of assessing the suitability of a mattress.

In the highly managed environment of many mattress showrooms where subjective perceptions of “comfort” can be easily controlled in the short term and are relative to your current circumstances and mood and how you feel … and what you tested immediately before and after each mattress (there are techniques that are used such as bracketing , testing order, or verbal cues that can change what you feel on a mattress and are used as a sales tool) … only good objective testing with a specific goal in mind of what you are testing for has good odds of success.



Thanks so much for your detailed reply.

I’m thinking that the Cirrus Luxe, while comfortable, might be too soft to keep my spine properly aligned. 2.5" of 4-pound memory foam over 2"of 8-pound memory foam, and I weigh 180lbs.

It seems there are two things I need to understand:

  1. how deep my hips and shoulders can sink while still maintaining good alignment
  2. how deep I’m sinking giving my current mattress and weight

I’m going to continue to use the Cirrus Luxe for now and see how it goes.

Hi VAsleeper,

There really isn’t an answer in inches to your question because each person is individual in terms of the natural curvature of their spine and their their body dimensions, weight distribution, and surface area of each part of the body (which controls how much each area sinks into a mattress, the tilt of the pelvis, and the secondary support under the more recessed curves of the body). The best way to know is either comparing your posture when you are lying down to when you are standing up with good posture, regardless of how far any part of you may be sinking in, and from the feedback of your body and your muscle’s ability to completely relax without any pain, tension, or discomfort in your back or joints in the morning from a spine that is out of its natural (or in some cases learned) alignment.

I wouldn’t try to measure how far each part sinks in because it’s not really possible to measure accurately and isn’t really as relevant as the alignment of your spine and your actual symptoms or ideally lack of symptoms in the morning once your adjustment period is over and your experience is more consistent from night to night (which for most people takes anywhere from a week or so to in some cases as much as 90 days or so).


Thanks. That makes sense. I haven’t yet returned my Regalis, so earlier today I spent a couple minutes laying on it and then a couple minutes laying on the Cirrus Luxe. After that comparison and further thought, I think I made the right decision by getting the Luxe. It just feels more comfortable and upon closer examination it doesn’t seem like I’m sinking TOO deep into it. It feels like the 8-pound foam does a good job of support beneath the 4-pound layer. Anyway…I’m going to continue to sleep on the Luxe and will post a more thorough review of it once I’ve had it for about 10 days…this is only my 5th night with it.

If I read you correctly, you slept on the Regalis for about 2 1/2 months. That should have been long enough to break it in. You will need to sleep on the softer mattress for a while to see how much it softens up. These do break in. I hope the Cirrus doesn’t become too soft over time, as you have gone from a very firm to a very soft mattress. You could end up with whiplash by going to the extremes! :slight_smile: Lew

yeah, my big fear with the Cirrus Luxe is that it will get too soft after a few months. Today I spent some time going back and forth on each mattress. My conclusion is that I’m happy to have the Luxe. Hopefully it won’t soften up too much.

I’ve been through this same issue several times over the past 20 or so years. My belief was that I needed a more firm support. Tried it and could not stand it. Thankfully I was smart enough to go with a SleepEZ latex configurable system. I THOUGHT that I liked Med over soft. It felt quite nice, but by morning my low back was hurting. I now run a soft layer up top and am working to establish the best middle layers.

For me a softer top with solid core seems to be best. The softer top needs some pretty good thickness to it also. I think a lot has to do with curvature of the spine. Standing if my shoulders touch the wall, there’s 4" between the small of my back and the wall and maybe 1-2" butt to wall.