Current theory suggests that mass change in adult birds while breeding may be adaptive (to reduce wing-loading during nestling feeding) or result from physiological stress. To test which might be more important in determining mass loss in breeding Savi's Warblers (Locustella luscinioides), we used a new approach in which the variation in four indices of body condition was described: weight, fat score, muscle score and lean weight (i.e. excluding fat and muscle). We expected weight variations to be adaptive if they involved changes in fat and lean weight, whereas physiological stress should influence the muscle score to a greater extent. As in other species, females showed a greater variation in weight, and carried more fat, than males during the breeding cycle. During incubation, females had greater weight and fat score than males. The weight remained constant and lean weight declined in both sexes, whereas females increased in muscle, which probably reflects the regression of the reproductive organs. During the nestling stage, both sexes declined significantly in all four indices of condition, showing evidence of physiological stress. However, the greater decline in weight in females than in males is consistent with the flight-adaptation hypothesis, as are the cyclic changes in lean weight associated with the various nesting attempts. The fact that both sexes declined significantly in weight, muscle and lean weight with an increasing number of nesting attempts, but not in fat, which was recovered after each nestling period, also indicates that both reproductive stress and adaptive changes occur during breeding. When the whole breeding season was considered, females showed a greater decline in muscle than males, which we interpret to be evidence for a greater reproductive stress in females. We suggest that the small breast muscle size and depleted protein reserves at the end of the breeding period might influence future survival through impaired flight ability and a compromised post-breeding moult.