Thermo-mechanical processing with warm-deformation in the ferrite is a promising pathway towards manufacturing of large volumes of steels with ultrafine grain sizes. We apply this processing to HSLA steels to invoke grain refinement coupled with strengthening arising from microalloying. The aim is to systematically unravel the strengthening via the addition of ‘modern’ microalloying elements Mo versus Cr besides Nb. These elements have been proposed to provide significant additional strengthening during such processing but the mechanisms yet remain unknown. Therefore, three model Fe-1.6Mn-0.04C-0.1Nb+0.5Mo/Cr steels were warm-rolled at ∼600 °C with an overall reduction of 50% followed by ageing. It was found that Mo leads to an increase in hardness of ∼20% compared to the base alloy, whereas Cr provides only a minor hardening increment. SEM, EBSD, TEM and atom probe were used to reveal the beneficial effect of Mo versus Cr. It was found that Mo is more effective delaying dislocation recovery. We also report that Mo partitions into nanoscale Nb–C solute clusters and precipitates of NbC and Fe3C during ageing, retarding the coarsening of these phases. However, Cr was found to partition into Fe3C only, and does not contribute to the nature of the dispersion of clusters and NbC.