The mechanical properties of the human spine have been studied extensively in compression, but there remains a lack of fundamental data in shear. The overall goal of this study was to contrast the mechanics of the thoracolumbar functional spinal unit (FSU) under compression and shear-type loads by evaluating endplate deformation, disc pressures, and kinematics between the different loading types. Eleven T12-L1 and one L1-L2 human FSUs were tested. Compression loads consisted of pure compression, extension-compression, flexion-compression, lateral left and right compression applied individually to a maximum of 500 N. Shear loading consisted of posterior, anterior, left, and right shear to a maximum of 500 N. Intervertebral motions, disc pressure, and vertebral body deformations were recorded for all loads. The deformations were measured using strain gauge rosettes at three points on the inferior vertebral body and one on the superior endplate of the inferior vertebra. The disc pressures and endplate deformations measured were significantly less in shear loading compared to compression and did not change significantly with the type of compression load. Vertebral rim strains were generally greater under shear loading compared with compression. The mechanics of load transfer in compression was the production of high disc pressures which were not linearly correlated with the central endplate deformation. In shear, the mechanism appears to be via the annulus fibrosus without the development of significant disc pressure. These differences between compression and shear loading may have implications for injury mechanisms in the thoracolumbar spine.