A number of different marker-assisted selection (MAS) approaches exist for the improvement of polygenic traits. Results of a marker-assisted backcross (MABC) selection experiment aimed at improving grain yield under drought conditions in tropical maize are presented and compared with alternative MAS strategies. The introgression of favourable alleles at five target regions involved in the expression of yield components and flowering traits increased grain yield and reduced the asynchrony between male and female flowering under water-limited conditions. Eighty-five per cent of the recurrent parent’s genotype at non-target loci was recovered in only four generations of MABC by screening large segregating populations (2200 individuals) for three of the four generations. Selected MABC-derived BC2F3 families were crossed with two testers and evaluated under different water regimes. Mean grain yield of MABC-derived hybrids was consistently higher than that of control hybrids (crosses from the recurrent parent to the same two testers as the MABC-derived families) under severe water stress conditions. Under those conditions, the best five MABC-derived hybrids yielded, on average, at least 50% more than control hybrids. Under mild water stress, defined as resulting in <50% yield reduction, no difference was observed between MABC-derived hybrids and the control plants, thus confirming that the genetic regulation for drought tolerance is dependent on stress intensity. MABC conversions involving several target regions are likely to result in partial rather than complete line conversion. Simulations were conducted to assess the utility of such partial conversions, i.e. containing favourable donor alleles at non-target regions, for subsequent phenotypic selection. The results clearly showed that selecting several genotypes (10-20) at each MABC cycle was most efficient. In the light of these results, alternative approaches to MABC are discussed, including recurrent selection, illustrated by an example of improving the adaptation of maize to low temperatures. Given the current approaches for MAS and the choices of marker technologies available now and potential for future developments, the use of MAS techniques in further improving grain yield under abiotic stresses in maize appears very promising.