What are healthy and safe exercises for strengthening the neck and cervical column?
Whenever you attempt to work the cervical region, you should take precaution. Many people have issues with their cervical spine and do not know it. This can be a result of bad posture and faulty movement patterns. When attempting any cervical exercises, or any other exercises for that matter, you need to pay close attention to posture and spinal stabilization.
As far as stretching, please search the PTN Flexibility Library under Muscle Group "Back and Neck" for some effective stretches of this region. Each stretch comes with a short video you can watch to make sure you know correct performance guidelines.
When starting the strengthening phase, you should start with isometric type exercises. The neck musculature is used most often in an isometric situation. One good exercise is to lay down on a gym mat with your head hanging off of the mat. This would create only a one or two inch difference between the height of your head and that of your body. The exercise is to lift your head so that it will remain in line with your torso and hold. Please be very conservative in your program. The neck musculature when used in this manner can become over worked quite quickly. Repeat the exercise supine, prone and to each side. The points to watch for are the chin jutting out and the SCM working too much. Be careful to watch for both and stop the exercise if either occurs. When you have been able to hold each position for one to three minutes and there is no pain or soreness accompanying, it is time to move to some resistance.
Repeat the above exercise and place a half pound beanbag on their head and progress from there. The most I have ever used with my patients is a five pound beanbag. A client I work with is a professional race car driver who must deal with G-forces while driving. This exercise has worked very well for him. Another is an ultimate fighter who deals with people trying to put him into neck cranks and the like. These exercises have worked very well for him also. Incidentally, he is the only one I have worked with who has progressed up to the five pound bag.
Another note that may be worthy of mentioning is an axial loading test to see if there might be any real concerns before you start. You perform an axial loading test by standing on a table or something where you are above the client. Clasp your hands together and gently apply pressure in a downward fashion evenly through the head. If the client experiences any type of sharp pain, he/she should be referred to a specialist to check for any major concerns beyond your scope of practice. I want to mention one more time that any cervical stretching and strengthening program should always be conservative in nature, erring on the side of caution.